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Limited Common Sense on Political Terms


Thirty-six states presently limit the number of terms a person may serve as governor. The most common form is a two-consecutive-term limit. Virginia is the only state where a governor may not serve two consecutive terms. Some claim this limit is “antiquated,” including the editors of the Charlottesville Daily Progress, who opined today:

There are several things wrong with this practice.

Foe one thing, it denies the voters a chance to make their own decision whether or not to return a governor to office. If voters want to continue a governor’s programs, they should have an opportunity to do so. If not, they can vote him out of office. Refusing them the option is patronizing, at best.

Of course, that’s true of any term limit, even the more conventional two-term limit that applies to most governorships and the presidency. And while it’s true term limits restrict the potential candidates available to voters, it’s just one of many. In Virginia, for example, a governor must be at least 30 years old and a registered voter in the state for the preceding five years. A resident of Maryland cannot be governor of Virginia no matter how many he votes he receives.

Nor do term limits prevent voters from “continuing a governor’s programs.” If the programs are popular and successful, no doubt other candidates will rush to emulate them. Politicians are notorious copycats. And for that matter, there’s no guarantee that a governor’s programs will remain consistent from year to year, much less from one term to another. It’s not unusual for a governor or president to embrace one set of programs in his first term — casting an eye towards reelection — only to shift policies completely in a second or third term.

Is it “patronizing” to deny voters a chance to reelect their favorite governor? Perhaps. But it’s equally patronizing for term limit opponents to cavalierly state, “You can always vote them out of office.” This ignores the substantial advantages of incumbency. Eighteen of the 28 sitting presidents who sought re-election won another term (I’m only counting FDR once here). In 2010 over 86% of House incumbents won re-election, and that was the low end of the historical spectrum. Is it the case that people are generally satisfied with incumbents, or is it more likely that incumbents use their position to reward supporters and “gerrymander” the election rules in their favor? I think it’s the latter more often than the former.

Historically, term limits was the social norm in the American system. Washington voluntarily limited himself to two terms when he could have easily won re-election for life. “Rotation in office” was a guiding principle of pre-Civil War government. Most 19th century state constitutions provided terms of only one or two years for governors. Antipathy towards term limits is a modern invention, a byproduct of the Progressive notion of the “civil service” as a permanent bureaucracy and elevating the appearance of “democratic” choice to the point where now we have a popularly elected Senate that routinely allows incumbents to retain seats for upwards of 20 or 30 years.

But I digress. I’m not here to defend term limits so much as I wish to debunk this second, more dangerous argument of the Daily Progress editorial:

A governor’s four-year term provides little time to devise and execute long-term planning for the state. Economic development is a prime example: Efforts such as recruiting major new businesses or reforming state policies to benefit the economy can require a long time horizon. Four years is just too short.

The same problem affects agencies and their direction from Richmond. Institutions such as the University of Virginia could better manage their own long-term planning if they at least had the possibility of working with the same administration for eight, rather than, four years.

Allowing a governor to succeed himself improves the odds for stability, consistency and quality of decision-making. There would be no impulse to “rush things” to meet a four-year deadline. There would be more time for planning and deliberation.

Virginia’s current constraint stands in the way of these benefits.

Okay, first off, notice how the authors don’t provide a single example of another state that was able to engage in responsible long-term planning because of the presence of a second-term governor. California just had Arnold Schwarzenegger for seven-plus years. How’s that state’s long-term future looking right now? Michigan just had eight years of Jennifer Granholm. I don’t think state agencies there are grateful for the “stability, consistency, and quality of decision-making” that she brought.

Virginia is far from the worst-governed state in the Union. It seems ludicrous to embrace a managerial practice that’s failed to provide any benefit to the failing states.

The larger flaw in this argument, however, is that long-term planning — specifically “economic development” — is somehow a product of stability at the top of the government hierarchy. This ignores the fact that true economic growth is based on private property rights, not electing the world’s best salesman as governor to “attract” out-of-state businesses. Indeed, contemporary “economic development” presumes a zero-sum economy where the only way to bring new jobs to your fiefdom is by stealing them from some other fiefdom. (By way of example, Charlottesville recently used tax money to lure a business from neighboring Albemarle County, thus constituting “growth” in the city’s tax base — er, economy.)

And even if you allow a governor to seek an unlimited number of consecutive terms, the “time horizon” will always remain the same. No politician governs past the next election. Many don’t govern past their next set of polling data. No governor or legislator is capable of projecting the costs and benefits of their policies 10 or 15 years into the future. All of recorded history has proven as much.

The problem, once again, is ownership, or lack thereof. Governors don’t own anything. They rent power for a short period of time. If their policies prove disastrous, the worse that can happen is they don’t win another election. There’s no personal liability attached to their decision-making. You’ll never get stability, consistency, or quality results from such a system, irregardless of who you elect.

The editorial writers point to the University of Virginia as an example of an institution that would benefit from better long-term planning. I completely agree. But the only way to get that type of thinking is to privatize the university and make it a for-profit entity that’s actually owned by someone or some group. Letting a governor serve for eight years instead of four solves nothing. It’s not even a token reform.

What opponents of term limits seem to want, even if they are unaware of it, is more bureaucracy as opposed to self-government. Regulatory agencies typically have leaders that serve for longer terms and do not face periodic elections. In theory this should make them ideal long-term planners. In reality we understand that such institutions are little more than self-replicating parasites.

Skip Oliva is a writer and paralegal in Virginia (skip@skipoliva.com).

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