The two smartest political votes that Palm Beach County voters ever passed were Term Limits for county commissioners (2002) and Single Member Districts for the county commission (1988). Both votes removed political power from the hands of a few to the hands of many.
More recently, the best political news I heard all week is that an appeals court ruled that voters can choose to amend a county’s charter to mandate term limits for county commissioners.
Something bizarre happens to most politicians when they stay in public office too long. They deny it, but I have seen it happen dozens of times. Some sort of malevolent mindset takes hold. And a kind of arrogance settles in, perhaps from being told how wonderful you are by too many people for too long.
Term limits work, because over the last few years we have seen what happens when we dont have them. Tenure corrupts.
Whatever deficit problems the Washington political class tackles, or however much the local county commission raises taxes every year, their number one priority is to get re-elected. They do that by handing out public money. And the more that politicians can expand government, the more money they can dole out. Because re-election becomes their holy grail, term limits reduce corruption and government expansion because limits eliminate re-election.
People in government hate term limits. Why? Because limits take away the “jobs” tenured people have settled into. Term limits eject the long-timers who have learned how to manipulate the system by controlling money and resources, and to wield power for their own interests. Government has the power of force to gain what they want. Government can take property, destroy businesses and livelihoods, and make decisions that enrich or devastate. But when tenure is denied, cozy relationships are neutered. When term limits are in play, new blood comes in, and the tenured crowd loses its unfair advantage to extend their incumbency and power over others.
This isn’t about whether I like or dislike individual politicians. It’s quite possible to distrust the institution while really liking elected officials as people. And this isn’t about the morality of long-time office holders. It’s about the awful temptations of power, and the weakness of human nature to succumb to those temptations.
Power is a dangerous thing. The best solution, ideally, is that power should be wielded by people who are reluctant to use it. This means people who are not career politicians. This means successful people who would prefer to be doing other things, but who have a sense of civic duty to give a few years of their lives to public service– preferably at the end of a successful career of doing something else. In fact, the best political leaders are those with real-world experience and success, as opposed to a life of experience in the political world of spin and deception.
So, long live Term Limits, which check the abuse of power by regularly returning office holders to private life. Government becomes a better place when an official doesn’t “own” an office. As Lord Acton could have said, tenure corrupts and long-term tenure could corrupt absolutely.
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