October 23, 2020

How to limit terms: by voting

 Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of (unsolicited) posts on social media that picture different political candidates and say that they’re either “good” or “bad” on term limits, with “good” meaning being for them.

I think being bad on term limits is a good thing.

First though, I get it. I’ve had conversations with people across the political spectrum who like the idea. People are tired of gridlock in Congress. They are tired of career politicians losing touch with constituents. They are tired of what has been called the Good-Ole Boy system, although it’s no longer an all-male club. Many people like the idea of having a fresh set of eyes on the issues of the day.

A famous Japanese-born Zen master Shunryu Suzuki talked about the advantages of having a beginner’s mind: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind, there are few.” That said, I think there are better ways of getting there — and that imposing congressional or legislative term limits could actually be harmful to democracy, whichever way one leans politically.

First, there are two very powerful ways of limiting terms already. The first is simply for a politician to decide not to run again. The second, more powerful, option is equally simple: Vote out the people who are causing the problems.

While it’s true that incumbent officeholders often have an advantage over challengers, that advantage is no guarantee. Nearly every primary or general election cycle brings a story of a powerful politician swept out of office. Some election cycles are more like tidal waves, sweeping away longstanding majorities.

In West Virginia a few years ago, for example, Republicans gained the majority in the Legislature for the first time since 1932. To wax biblical, every two years or so, there’s a chance to say “how art the mighty fallen.” Term limits also would deprive voters of the chance to support candidates of their own choosing. But there are other compelling reasons to oppose congressional or legislative term limits.

For one thing, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” it takes a long time to get good at anything. Specifically, he talked about the “10,000 hour rule,” as in, it takes about that long to master a complex skill or body of knowledge. I’m not sure about the exact math, but I think he has a point. Even with expertise, in politics, it can take a long time to rise to positions of influence, such as leadership of committees.

Some aspects of public policy, from education funding to taxes and budgets to health care and beyond, are really complicated. It takes a good while to get a handle on them. To sweep out people arbitrarily before they get there — or even worse, once they do — is to ask for trouble. Put it this way: Would you want to fight in an army or serve on a fire department where officers, and rank and file, are new at the job and inexperienced?

The alternative is to let knowledge of the inner workings of complicated systems stay in the hands of unelected officials. Talk about a deep state.

There’s another reason that I think is more compelling in polarized times. People often lament “gotcha” style politics, in which scoring points against rivals is more important than getting things done.

This is an area where game theory can shed some light. A classic scenario with very wide application is the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a situation in which two people are arrested for the same crime and held in isolation. If neither confesses, the sentence will be light for both. If both confess, the sentence will be moderate. If one confesses and the other doesn’t, the first one gets off easy and the second gets hard time. In this scenario, confessing is called defecting and keeping silent is cooperating with the other. The risks are highest for the one who cooperates.

What’s the best solution, since the two can’t talk to each other? The short version is that, in a one-time situation, there’s no incentive not to stick it to the other guy. That’s probably why it’s usually not a good idea to buy a used car or a racehorse from a total stranger you’ll never see again.

One of my favorite vents in the Gazette-Mail wound up on my refrigerator for months. It was something like: “To whoever sold me a F-150 pickup in the Walmart parking lot, you are not a true Christian.”

The incentives change, however, if the game is played over and over again. The longer people have to interact with each other, and the more people know and remember reputations from past behavior, the greater the chances that people will cooperate. In the words of political scientist Robert Axelrod, “Once ‘the shadow of the future’ lengthens, we have the basis for more durable relationships.”

Term limits would drastically reduce the “shadow of the future.” If you think things are bad now, I think they’d only get worse with term limits that would reduce the incentives to try to work things out. My suggestion: If you want to limit someone’s term, try the old-fashioned way. Vote.