During his presidential announcement on Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul took a stand for term limits. “We limit the president two terms” he said. “It is about time we limit the terms of Congress.”
This struck me as an odd thing for a libertarian-leaning candidate to say. After all, shouldn’t we the people get to decide whom we want to represent us … or not? Having someone else decide what’s best for us strikes me as the electoral equivalent of helmet laws.
In both cases, there are unintended consequences. In the case of the term limits, what happens when politicians no longer stick around long enough to acquire the knowledge and expertise that come with tenure? The predictable answer is that bureaucrats, staffers, and lobbyists gain power. These unelected and unaccountable elites inevitably become the permanent ruling class.
This is an inevitable result of frustration at the political process. The notion that term limits are a panacea is not a new one, of course. It was even part of the Contract With America (a part quickly abandoned).
But like so many things that have come to define “conservatism” (this is a central theme of my forthcoming book on conservatism), a lot of ideas and attitudes in vogue today actually conflict with ideas espoused by Ronald Reagan — who even wanted to end presidential term limits — saying they interfered with the public’s right to “vote for someone as often as they want to do.”
Reagan wanted to end term limits for presidents, and let we the people decide. Rand wants to “Defeat The Washington Machine,” it seems, by rigging the rules.
Ultimately, this is a fight over populism. One brand — a sort of “scorched-earth populism” — involves angry men wielding metaphorical pitchforks and chanting: “Throw the bums out!”
A more optimistic brand of populism — the kind Reagan espoused — trusted individuals (not elites who supposedly know what’s best for us) to make our own decisions. Here, men instead yell: “Vote the bums out!” After all, we get to impose term limits on our own Congressmen every two years. If we want.