Stupidity is not the problem

Posted: Apr 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Democrat to "stay" democratic, that would be one thing. But you can't, they don't, so let's move on, vigilant. Without vigilance citizens haven't a ghost of a chance.)

Another possible answer is that politicians are just dumber than business people. But I don't quite buy that. Politicians are so effective at hiding their true natures, so effective in defending their sorry records to their constituents, that I just can't believe that they are as stupid as they suggest. This whole gambit of "it's just too hard" rubs against the grain of the savvy political operative we've all come to know and . . . distrust. Florida's Speaker of the House, after insisting how difficult learning the process was, recognized that he seemed to be casting aspersions onto his fellow legislators. "I'm not implying," he hastily added, "that our members ? please don't read this into it ? don't know what's going on." Well, that's precisely what he was implying. And he did so for a purpose.

Face it: politicians aren't clueless ? not about politics itself. They overstate difficulties for a reason. Behind their lies and hyperbole is the truth: there is no inevitable and permanent barrier to newcomers, no burdensomely steep learning curve. Any politically savvy citizen of moderate intelligence could quickly acclimate himself or herself to any legislature in the country. Provided that legislature had term limits.

Why do term limits matter?

Well, the politicians' complaints about learning curves and their own pixilated stupidity may have some bearing in reality. Politicians just ascribe to these factors a permanence they do not actually possess.

Here's what I mean: It may very well be the case that, under the old regime, where seniority counted for everything and where the internal power of the legislatures was divvied up amongst those longest in office, learning how to legislate was necessarily slow. Why? Because it was designed to be slow. What use would it be to the powers that be to have young legislators take over too soon? The less the newbies know, the better. For the oldsters, anyway.

What people too often forget is that a system encourages certain behaviors and discourages certain others. A set-in-place system sets a context. It's the same in education. Just as legislators say it takes years to accumulate the requisite knowledge to make good law, one could say it takes twelve years to learn how to read. But that's just in some public schools. In other contexts ? that is, better schools ? kids learn much more quickly.

In better legislatures, with limited terms for legislators, our representatives will learn fast, too. After all, they aren't numskulls. Well, most of them.

They're merely institutionally disadvantaged ? by the seniority system, by calcification in the corridors of power.

Term limits make sense because they would force reforms to break up patterns of power that are most likely to lead to corruption both subtle and blatant. Unlimited terms beget legislator miseducation. (That's what I've argued for years in my Common Sense e-letter, and in states around the country.)

I think the majority of citizens understands this, at least at the level of intuition. So even politicians should be able to get the point.

No, dear gentlemen and gentlewomen of the law-making guild, you are not stupid. And no, your job is not too hard. You just need a little help getting started. That help is term limits, which will end the system that prevents you from ramping up to competence as fast as individuals do in the business world every day. As the old guard exits forever, you will quickly learn to prove your intelligence ? and if we're really lucky, your wisdom.

So, please, forget this embarrassing fight against term limits. It just makes you look more stupid than you are.