Thursday, March 26, 2009

Term Limits Aren't the Answer

Anger over the profligate spending of Congress is leading to renewed cries for term limits. If we throw the "bums" out, the thinking goes, we can elect representatives who are more responsive to voters. While the appeal of such thinking is understandable, it is fundamentally flawed.

The real problem is not in Congress, but in the voters. Voters are the ones who put the "bums" there in the first place. Congress is simply responding to the demands and values of voters. Wholesale replacement of Congress will not change this fact. We will just wind up with a different group of statists.

Politics is not a primary--it derives from ethics. Ultimately, the dominant ethics of a culture will determine its political system. So long as Americans embrace altruism--the belief that the individual must sacrifice his values to others--they will elect politicians who are eager to enact that tenet into law. Just as re-casting the roles in a poorly written play will not transform it into an inspirational performance, changing the actors in Washington (or any other governing body) will not change the plot in Congress.

Consider Houston city council for example. Enacted in the early 1990's, Houston limits council members to three two-year terms. This has only changed the faces, but not the essential policies. Houston has seen a steady parade of members pushing "quality of life" issues and seeking to expand city control of land-use. Before term limits we had Eleanor Tinsley and Jim Greenwood; today we have Sue Lovell and Peter Brown.

When voters demand that their rights be recognized, respected, and protected they will elect politicians who will do so. When voters reject the premise that government should be used to dispense political favors, engage in social engineering, and regulate the economy, they will elect politicians who share those views.

The web site for US Term Limits (USTL) states:
American politicians, special interests and lobbyists continue to combat term limits, as they know term limits force out career politicians who are more concerned with their own gain than the interests of the American people.

USTL stands up against this practice. We are the voice of the American citizen. We want a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not a tyrannical ruling class who care more about deals to benefit themselves, than their constituents.

Notice that there is no mention of individual rights or the proper purpose of government. The premise behind the term limits movement is that government should reflect the opinions and values of "the people". They are not opposed to violations of individual rights; they are opposed to legislation that does not reflect the voice of "the people". If "people" wish to enslave their neighbors, presumably USTL would not oppose such measures. In other words, they are opposed to a tyranny of the few, but not a tyranny of the many.

Democracy--unlimited majority rule--is precisely what the term limits crowd advocates. They want to put an end to career politicians and give "ordinary" citizens greater opportunities to run for office. But what will those citizens advocate? Will they support and defend individual rights? Or will they simply impose their pet causes upon the citizenry? USTL does not tell us because USTL does not regard the ideas being advocated as an important issue.

Term limits are not the answer because they are not addressing the question: What is the proper purpose of government? Until the citizenry can answer that question properly--the protection of individual rights--the term limits movement is simply tilting at windmills.

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