Bad news from China
By Scott Sumner
Of course this was not unexpected, but still quite disappointing:
China’s ruling Communist Party has proposed scrapping term limits for the country’s president, the official news agency said Sunday, appearing to lay the groundwork for party leader Xi Jinping to rule as president beyond 2023.
The party’s Central Committee proposed to remove from the constitution the expression that China’s president and vice president “shall serve no more than two consecutive terms,” the Xinhua News Agency said.
Although China is not democratic, I’d like to begin with a discussion of the importance of term limits in a democracy. If democracies worked perfectly, then there would be almost no need for term limits (although in that case there would also be almost no cost to term limits.) But real world democracies are not perfect. Let’s consider two groups:
1. Successful democracies like Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, etc. In those sorts of countries it doesn’t matter very much who is the prime minister (or president). The policy regime is pretty well entrenched, and no individual has much power.
2. Unsuccessful democracies like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, etc. In those countries the leaders really do make a difference. Putin, Erdogan, and Maduro are powerful leaders, who have authoritarian tendencies. This kind of leader tends to ignore term limits (at least in spirit, if not technically).
Term limits have a tiny cost (limiting the choice of voters from say 100,000,000 choices for leader of Russia, to 99,999,999 million choices.) But a much larger benefit, reducing the authoritarian tendencies in the system.
Of course democracy is not an either/or, but a matter of degree. On a scale of 0 to 100, Switzerland might be 99, the USA 95, Russia and Turkey 60, Venezuela 40, China under Hu Jintao 25, China under Xi 20, and China under Mao 5. (Surely my numbers are a bit off in some cases, but you get the point.) Regardless of whether a country is mostly democratic or mostly authoritarian, terms limits tend to reduce the risk of authoritarian leaders.
The purpose of term limits is to prevent a highly charismatic leader from becoming entrenched—one who convinces voters than he is indispensable. Any country with an “indispensable” leader is a failed country. Voters should never, ever select anyone who says “I alone can fix” the problems facing that country.
This is why Washington is my favorite President. He understood the importance of this danger, and got the USA off on the right foot. He set the right example. Pity that Xi is no Washington.
PS. This argument for term limits does not apply to lower level officials. We might also want them to be term limited, but you’d need to make a different argument. No single Congressman is capable of being a dictator. I’m agnostic on this issue.
PPS. I believe the biggest problem occurs where there are term limits, which are later ignored. If you look at recent such cases in lower and middle income countries, it’s highly correlated with bad outcomes. It’s slightly less worrisome when there was no term limit in the first place. Ignoring legal terms limits is de facto evidence of abuse of power. I also believe that term limits should apply to immediate family members (spouses, children, etc.)
PPPS. If a country decides to remove a constitutional term limit, the new rules should NEVER apply to the incumbent. The fact that the new policy almost always does apply to the incumbent is prima facie evidence that the country is not democratic. In the case of the US, the adoption of presidential term limits in 1947 did not apply to the incumbent (Truman), which was appropriate.
Update: Tim Worstall reaches the same conclusion.