What politicians don't 'get'

Paul Jacob

1/30/2005 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

Senator Chris Beutler doesn't get it. He's not alone. Many politicians in other districts in other states similarly don't get it.

"I still don't understand," Beutler confessed, "why people would want to give up their right to choose whoever they please."

Chris Beutler is only one of many Nebraska politicians who chafe at the idea of term limits. Nebraska's voter-enacted limits are more recent than those of many other states. So Nebraskans now endure political maneuvers and machinations that states such as Montana and Arkansas and California have gone through already: a revolt of the political class. In this case, a politician-sponsored referral to the voters of a repeal of term limits enacted just five years ago.

Beutler, a 22-year veteran, has sponsored the bill, and points out that it will not affect his slated exit from office. The bill would go into effect in 2010, one term after Beutler's rise to the top will be given its term-limit directed setback, four years after 20 of 49 state senators are usherred out the door. Though if the repeal were to pass, Beutler and his cronies could then return to the unicameral after just one term out.

The senator thinks of his opposition to term limits as noble, selfless.

Yup. He just doesn't get it.

It's an occupational hazard, really, the hazard of representing "the people" while being set off from them by the very job one holds. One comes to believe that whatever makes one's job easier, or more stable, is what's "good for the people."

But of course that isn't the case. A union of interests between rulers and the ruled is pretty hard to negotiate. Throughout human history, the rulers have proven themselves more than able to extract more benefits from the system they impose than the ruled can manage.

Which is why savvy citizens are skeptical of politicians. Even in a democracy. That's also why citizens support the very thing the befuddled senator doesn't understand, term limits.

But give him a break: it's not just politicians who "don't get" certain fairly clear ideas.

Drunks, for instance, don't understand why a person would set a two-glass-a-night limit on wine. "Why would you want to give up your right to choose as many drinks as you please?"

Gluttons, likewise, don't get how a person could not eat the second helping of potatoes and that juicy slice of apple pie. "How could you limit yourself like that?"

Thieves, too, don't understand why a person would forebear grabbing a desired item simply because one lacks the funds to pay for it. "You chumps and your artificial limits!"

Voters are, in general, more sophisticated in their thinking than drunks, gluttons, and thieves -- and politicians.

They realize that setting a limit is not the same thing as denying that the limited thing might be good in some context or other. Setting the limit controls the context.

Why politicians can see this in private life, but not public life, is a bit of a puzzle. Well, come to think of it, the longer they are in office, the tougher it becomes for them to see it even in their private lives.

The medical and psychological benefits of one glass of wine strike many people as pretty obvious, and fairly well demonstrated. But the hazards of over-drinking are clearer yet. They have been for millennia. To set up a limit on one's drinking is not to deny the goodness of one gulp. It is to realize that the value can diminish as more is consumed. This is basic economics (ever heard of marginal utility?) as well as common horse sense. And it applies to food as well as . . . politicians.

The trouble with politics is power. How quickly and easily one gets used to it and its benefits. And it's easy to draw the wrong lessons; a person on "the inside" begins to look at the people on "the outside" of the corridors of power in subtly different ways.

Politicians should have sense enough to see this danger as a personal matter, a matter of temptation. That it has become a political issue is largely the result of voters seeing something more clearly than the self-deluded political class sees it. Voters see how politicians metamorphose term after term. They see how power can be so tempting that nothing else ends up making sense. Liberty can even cease to make sense ? a disappointing truth about politicians I've often had occasion to notice in my Common Sense e-letter.

Voters are savvy, though. They realize what Senator Beutler does not: that limiting one's "right" to choose a candidate over and over again is a necessary first step to gain some control over unlimited government growth. Yes, unlimited terms go hand in hand with permanent government growth, with never-ending bureaucratic bloat.

So ? like healthy drinkers, prudent eaters, and responsible citizens ? choosey voters choose limits. Less is more. Voters get it. That's why they overwhelmingly support term limits . . . and why politicians should give up their futile crusade to undermine the voters' good sense.