Friday, January 8, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

Last week, outgoing Mayor Bill White announced the formation of a committee to study the city's term limit ordinance. The Chronicle reports that the commission chairman, Arthur Schechter, believes changes might be needed:
Schechter said he is inclined to believe two-year terms are too short for effective governance, but isn't starting his work with any firm opinions about what the outcome should be.
Any changes to the ordinance will require voter approval, and based on the comments to the article, that appears to be an uphill battle. But the entire issue of term limits is superficial. As I wrote in an earlier post:
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.
Those who think that term limits will fix anything are giving more importance to the butt in the seat than the ideas in the head. They believe that frequent turnover of elected officials will somehow result in better policies. But the fact is, the policies proposed by city officials are the consequence of their ideas. So long as voters continue to elect politicians with the same essential ideas, nothing significant is going to change.

Those who support term limits typically argue that we don't need career politicians, and term limits is one way to prevent that from occurring. That is naive at best, and an evasion of the real issue.

Consider Houston's new mayor, Ma Parker. She served 3 terms on city council before getting booted out by term limits. So then she ran for controller, and served 3 terms in that office before getting booted out by term limits. Now she is mayor, which means that despite term limits, Ma will have held a city office for 14 years at the end of her first term. And if she follows her predecessors, she will top out at 18 years. Term limits certainly haven't stopped Ma from making a pretty substantial career out of city politics.

Even if term limits somehow prevented this political buffet, it doesn't address the real issue. It doesn't address why anyone would want to make a career in politics.

Most politicians will state that they run for office to serve the public, or some similar blather. I suppose that there might be one or two who really mean it, but most are in it for the power--the power to impose their values on the rest of the citizenry.

Again, consider Ma Parker. She wants to make the trains run on time--and force us to pay for it. She wants to "protect neighborhoods", and she'll use force to keep those nasty developers--the guys who built the neighborhood--from doing things that she doesn't like. She likes old buildings, and if you are unfortunate to own one she takes a fancy to, she will prohibit you from tearing it down. Ma didn't get into politics to serve the public. She got into politics to serve those who share her values.

There is no such entity as "the public". The public consists of all individuals, and we do not speak with one voice. We do not seek the same things in life. But we do share one common value--the moral right to pursue our dreams and goals without interference from others, so long as we respect their mutual rights. This is the only proper meaning of "serving the public"--protecting the rights of all individuals.

Instead, politicians bicker over whose rights will be violated and who will benefit. Today, they slip a noose around the necks of one group of individuals in the name of the "public good". Tomorrow, they slip a noose around the necks of another group of individuals in the name of the "general welfare". Next week, another group still will find a noose slipping over their heads in the name of the "common good". And soon, all will find a noose around his neck. Nobody will think that good, except perhaps those with political pull.

Term limits do nothing to stop this orgy of sacrifice. Term limits do not challenge the notion that sacrifice is necessary or proper. They simply argue that we occasionally need a new group of henchmen. Until the idea that the individual is subservient to the demands of the group is rejected, individuals will continue to seek a career in politics.

I sympathize with those who want to put an end to career politicians. But term limits is not the way to do it. Spreading the right ideas is.

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