Sep 1, 2010

Term-limits pit practical versus purist

When the has-been Sen. Byrd died (MHDSRIP!!!1), it underscored once again the devil that is a career politician. Take it away, Nick:

As the encomia mount like rotting, fly-buzzed piles of the pork-barrel spending he so systematically shoveled back to his West Virginia home, let's not forget the late Sen. Robert Byrd's most undeniable legacy: Undermining Confirming belief in politicians as little more than self-serving glad-handers on the hunt for more and more taxpayer money for their constituents.

Read the whole thing if you haven't already. It's a fairly damning piece, but unfortunately for the rest of us in America it is a common tale. Articles that try to highlight in hyperbole the hubris and corruption of public officials come off as banal. Maybe we're desensitized. Maybe we've come to expect it.

The standard defense posited for limiting the prevalence of this kind of venal legacy-building is to impose term limits. The argument usually riffs off of some standard themes, such as how we were founded in retaliation of monarchies and dictators, how we demonize monopoly, and how George Washington didn't want to be president, dammit! Career politicians make these sorts of shenanigans the norm, because the incentives are to pander for votes and support in order to remain gainfully employed on the public dime.

Worse, the la-la land that most politicians reside in gives them visions of grandeur about everything: the process, their role in it, and the importance of maintaining it. They truly believe the line “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” that they are doing Good Deeds™, and that it is only natural that they stay elected — after all, how else will they continue to spread happiness? I try and tend to be optimistic about things, so I do believe that most politicians do have good intentions. But even a benevolent fool is still a fool, and power, even perceived, corrupts.

So what are we to do? Short of severely limiting the power of government to in turn limit their ability to fuck shit up, which is a clinically proven libertarian pipe-dream, why not just term-limit them? Then the pain can be constrained to four or eight years or whatever. Then we can always have that glimmer of hope, or something.

But this need for limits is, after all, just a band-aid to the larger problem of government having too much power. So you'd think this would be a solved issue for libertarians. That's where you're wrong. This issue is really good at separating the Rands from the Miltons.

From a purist approach, term-limits limit democratic freedom. If a voting bloc wishes to keep sending Byrds and Murthas to Capitol Hill, why tell them they can't? The practical ones, on the other hand, would rather follow in Madison's footsteps and try to soften the punch to the gut that inevitably follows any election.

The clever ones (or the Cato ones) have already spotted the error. Term-limits limit democratic freedom. Libertarians are all about liberty and thus most certainly freedom, but typically it’s individual freedom they are after. Democracy is just a nice, patriotic way of saying majoritarianism. And if there’s one thing I am not in favor of it is the tyranny of the masses.

Maybe you can see where this is going. This issue, amongst others, divides purists from the practical. In most cases, I tend to find myself siding with the purists. I admit I have a real Randian slant. So many issues always boil down, for me, to being simply morally wrong, end of argument. No amount of “but look at all the good X could do” can change that it is morally wrong to take people’s money at gun point.

But I see a great divide amongst libertarians that tends to fall on whether you favor the individual out of principal or out of efficiency — that is, you see it as leading to optimum operating conditions for human societies.

The Randian ideal, which again I do tend to favor for the most part, is one of unwavering principal. You do it that way because it is morally right. Not because it works, not because it is best, and not because it is optimum (though they would probably argue that it arrives at those benefits anyway). The distinction is very important, though subtle, and is usually only demonstrated by issues like term-limits. Both will argue that favoring the individual is always the best way to go for societies, whether economic or happiness or progress. But one argues on more empirical grounds, and the other based on inherit rights. But the inherit right is there, they say, because it works. That’s what Rand spent so many pages on during John Galt’s [in]famous speech. So maybe this is a chicken or egg problem. Randians think the individual justifies the process. Miltons think the process justifies the individual.

So you won’t get a consensus on term-limits. Some will favor eliminating them in the name of freedom, in the hopes that it will lead to greater overall freedom in the end, abuses in the short run be damned. Others would rather limit, being more interested in curtailing government power and tweaking the machine to run more efficiently as they see it. This is precisely why Rand criticized libertarians. She saw them as more interested in optimizing the system, which need not necessitate a moral base of principals. To her, the principal was more important than any empirically-based argument. Like they were practicing Christianity to get into heaven instead of because it is simply right to worship god (Hallelujah!).


So, yeah, term-limits. Yay or nay?

I’ll argue all day long that the real solution isn’t to put a band-aid on it, that so many issues like this become moot once you substantially diminish the government’s power.

But, in the end, I realize it’s a pipe-dream and an ideal libertard utopia. So, in the interest of eventualism, I’ll take what I can get. The founders had the right idea, that politicians should be citizens first and not make careers out of politics, and then democracy would work much better. However, as I always harp on, if that is truly your goal then you need to make the incentives line up. Term-limits, in the end, are still just a band-aid.

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