Why America's politicians need longer terms
They could get so much done if only we gave them a little bit more time
2016 was the year of populism, and some even believe democracy itself is now at stake. There is a spectrum running from populism to authoritarianism, and from authoritarianism to fascism, and it may be impossible to tell where we are, and where we're headed, until it is too late.
As some on the left see a Mussolini around every corner, some on the right find themselves drawn to books with titles like The Demon in Democracy, and thinking not just about how to preserve what they cherish within the liberal order, but whether the liberal order itself is worth preserving. The European Union seems in danger of collapsing, while in America, the Republican Party's dominance of politics at the state level has some talking about rewriting the United States Constitution.
Whatever this matrix of events portends for world-historical outcomes, it's at least refreshing to see philosophical-political debate go back to the basics, as it were, to talk about the foundations of democracy and not just its pretty flourishes.
In the interest of that debate, let me offer an immodest proposal: We should have fewer elections.
Don't get me wrong, I still believe that liberal democracy, at least in countries with a dominant, educated, and bourgeois middle class, is the best regime there is. Like a market, a polity is in many ways a Darwinian actor, a mechanism for discovery by trial and error. A democracy is unsentimental: If you're a prime minister, and median income falls, you get booted and replaced by the next guy, in the same way firms that can't ensure profits get bankrupted by the markets, and their assets handed off to people who can. Democracies tend to do better than authoritarian regimes over the long term, I believe, not because of any inherent moral worth to democracy, but simply because they have a much less sentimental process for replacing leaders based on results, which leads to more policies being pursued, and more trial and error.
This is often a better process for getting things done than relying on central decision-makers, because those decision-makers are typically too ignorant and too self-important to get things right. Democracies beat authoritarian regimes for the same reasons that markets beat central planners.
Take Vladimir Putin, for example. Putin is the Michael Jordan, or the Zinedine Zidane, of global politics. When you watch him play, it's like the rest of the people on the field turn into mannequins. That being said, under his rule, the standard of living of the average Russian has declined precipitously. If Russia were a democracy, he'd already be out. Putin has done a lot to boost Russia's power in the short term, but over the long run, what will determine Russia's power is the aggregate productivity of its citizens and its population growth, and on both metrics, Russia is doing poorly.
Putin may go on to be remembered as a sort of Russian Charles de Gaulle: an astonishingly brilliant man who hoisted his nation to the front of the international stage through sheer talent and force of will, but whose legacy will remain, in the final analysis, an impotence to alter the structural reasons for its decline.
Democracy is an amazing tool for countries to increase their prosperity and political power. But it does have one drawback, and that is time. This is particularly evident in the United States. In American politics, new presidents are assumed to be at their most powerful during their first 100 days in office. They get 100 days, from the moment of their inauguration, to actually implement policy, and then everyone starts campaigning again. With four years per term, that works out to 7 percent of the time being devoted to actual government.
I should remind everyone here that the 100 days tradition originates in Napoleon's attempted restoration of his own empire, quashed at Waterloo. It is not a good practice. Napoleon accomplished little but self-destruction and the destruction of many lives in the process. Presidents should not boast about their 100 days.
A lot of things require a long time horizon that just isn't available, thanks to term limits. Is it any wonder why politicians have meager incentive to engage in strategies and projects that will only pay off decades hence?
This is of crucial importance. Think of climate change, on which action — of whatever kind — is always being indefinitely postponed. Think of major infrastructure, or technological projects that have multi-decade runways.
A key advantage Angela Merkel has in dominating Europe is simply that she has been around for so long. But she is the exception that proves the rule. Democratic leaders are gone in a flash. Barack Obama already is. By the time we hit another major financial crisis, it's likely we will have gone through all the leaders who lived through the previous one (except for Vladimir Putin).
So, let's keep the U.S. Constitution as it is, but double every term of office. Presidents get eight years per term (they can be re-elected once). Members of the House of Representatives get four years. Senators get 12 (yes, 12).
Give them (and us) a break from the endless campaigning. Let them think beyond the next day. Give them at least 200 days with which to work.