Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Houston Term Limits Redux

A special commission appointed by former Mayor Bill White is examining the city's term limit policies and is scheduled to issue a report by July. The minutes for the February meeting of commission are online and present an interesting look at how members of the public view the purpose of government.

While far from unanimous, comments from the public were in general agreement that term limits--at least as currently used--are a bad thing. The reason is two-fold: 1. City officials cannot support and follow through on long-range projects, and 2. Community leaders must regularly "re-educate" new city officials regarding the needs of their community. In other words, term limits makes it difficult for the city to engage in projects such as light rail, flood control, and other infrastructure development.

This is undoubtedly true, but it is based on the false premise that government should even be involved in such projects. Those speaking to the commission refused to question this premise, instead focusing on the impact that term limits has on their particular organization. However, if we question this assumption, the issue is cast in an entirely different light.

The purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. Government's purpose is to establish and protect a social setting in which individuals are free to act according to their own judgment, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. This precludes government from using force for any purpose (except in retaliation against those who initiate its use), including those deemed to be in the "public interest". Limited to its proper purpose, government would not be engaged in projects such as light rail, flood control, and infrastructure development. Such projects--if they are desired--would be left to the voluntary and consensual discretion of private individuals.

With such projects removed from city government, term limits becomes a moot issue. With city government limited to the protection of individual rights, the primary function of city officials would be defining the application of property rights to projects such as light rail, flood control, and infrastructure development. With political considerations removed from the table, community leaders would have no need for developing political influence.

So long as government is involved in activities outside its proper domain, citizens will have an incentive to curry favor with politicians and bureaucrats. And elected officials will have incentive to award political supporters with projects and policies that they support. Term limits does not change this fact, it merely changes the faces involved.

The real solution is not limiting the time that elected officials can serve. The real solution is limiting their power.

No comments: