In his commentary “Term Limits Are a Poor Substitute for an Informed Electorate,” blogger Andy Sochor repeats a familiar claim: That formally term-limiting political tenure implies the irrelevance of intelligent involvement in political life, and even discourages our participation in it.
This assessment would have surprised the Romans in their republican days or the Athenians in Greece’s golden age. Both polities imposed stringent term limits on political offices; and in both, citizens (non-slave adult males) actively participated in political life. It was willingness to flout traditional term limits that helped precipitate the collapse of the Roman republic and the rise of the emperors. Augustus, who took over after Julius Caesar was assassinated, ruled uninterruptedly for decades (even if we subtract the years he shared imperial power with Mark Antony).
Term limits in fact encourage citizens to participate in political life by fostering meaningful options at the polling booth. Incumbents enjoy enormous advantages over challengers, especially in district-level elections. These advantages often yield lopsided contests and even contests in which the incumbent faces no challenger at all.
What use is it to a voter to study up on which candidate is best when there’s only one candidate?
No single institutional feature of governance can conquer corruption in high places or ignorance in low places. But from what I’ve seen, voters become discouraged from learning about options when their options are reduced under incumbency-forever politics.
Under term limits, they have greater incentive to inform themselves.
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.