Scott Sumner  

Bad news from China

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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.

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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.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Shane L writes:

I agree with Scott's analysis here. I thought you might also be interested in this description by the Why Nations Fail authors of the situation in the Philippines where term limits were insufficient to restrain the power of politicians when combined with a strongly dynastic culture at the top:

"For example, in the province of Camiguin the congressman Pedro Romualdo faced a term limit in 1998 after serving for 3 consecutive terms. In response he successfully ran for governor while his son Jurdin Romualdo took his seat in congress. After both served three consecutive terms in their new positions, they swapped. In 2007 Pedro went back to being congressman, while Jurdin became governor....

In 1998 the sitting congressman Jose Zubiri Jr. faced a term limit. He was replaced by his son Juan. Jose switched to Governor in 2001. When Juan hit a term limit in 2007, he switched to the Senate and was replaced by his younger brother Jose Zubiri III. In 2010 Jose senior faced a term limit as Governor but what could he do with his two sons in the Senate and Congress and not yet term limited? No problem, he successfully ran for vice Governor.... term limits in the Philippines did not influence the probability that the same family controls a particular political office".

Tim Worstall writes:

Very much the same thought elsewhere:

If someone is a pure figurehead, used for pinning medals on people, then fine, no term limitation. But if they've got real power then the more the limitation is needed. And the more effective they are at deploying the power, the more the limitation is needed again.

Sanghyeon writes:

Shane, the obvious solution to "swapping" is to implement lifetime term limit instead of consecutive term limit.

I live in South Korea, and 1987 constitution which brought democracy to South Korea specifies lifetime term limit.

Mark writes:

Politicians should be changed as often as diapers and for the same reason.

Shane L writes:

That's interesting, Sanghyeon, and yes, makes sense to me too.

Scott Sumner writes:

Shane, Yes, that's why I say apply the concept to entire families. (Sorry Hillary)

Tim, Excellent post.

Sangyheon, Good idea.

Markus writes:

I disagree - somewhat. I agree on most points, but: In Germany we (well, most of us, if we look at the polls and votes) kinda like our governments to be stable and if this means the option to have the same chancellor for three terms: just fine - and we see not much wrong with four terms:
1949–1963: Adenauer
1982–1998: Kohl
Since 2005: Merkel
In any discussion about term-limits in Germany you will hear so. saying: "Look - the USA. Without a term limit, Bill Clinton would have won against Bush jr. -
and Obama would have against Donald Duck. Still sure, term-limits are so great?" - murmur of agreement, discussion over.

I do favour limits, but three seem better than two, the cost of just two is NOT that "tiny"
("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.))"
Sure the people (or the parties) have still millions (or dozens) of other men/women to choose from, BUT the incumbent is the ONE and only who has proven (hopefully) to be up to the job - or not. (Which leaves the problem how Bush jr. could get re-elected, or why Putin/Erdogan is so adored by most Russians/Turks ... ).
Thinking of it, as Trump is as popular as ever with his voters - why not limit to ONE term only?!? - All your points for term-limitatation apply!

Fred_PA_2000 writes:

Yes. Very disappointing. The only small hopeful sign being that Xi Jinping hasn't done that badly by the Chinese people so far.

But assuming Hayek is correct, and more people necessarily know more "stuff" about their economy and society than one man can (and permitting relatively free markets so that those "more people" can enact what they know), then China is likely being doomed to a self-imposed dark age.

It is only cold (& minimal) comfort that the dragon has chosen lobotomy: A less human / more beast-like dragon may well be *more* dangerous to the humans around it.

Todd Kreider writes:

Scott, you wrote:

Any country with an "indispensable" leader is a failed country

Wasn't Lee Kwan Yew considered an indispensibe leader for 30 years? Would you consider Singapore a failed state? I do because of the lack of freedom and rights but then again the GDP per capita is heading to $100,000 a year.

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.)

I get your point but the Freedom House Index and The Democracy Index posted at The Economist website would say your Russia ranking is way off: they both place Russian and China equally toward the bottom.

Gallego writes:

I disagree that democracies need term limits. Clearly, there is no problem with someone being a prime minister for a long time, as Adenauer or Thatcher show. But then again, you need it with people like Xi or Putin or Erdogan. So, what's the difference?

In my mind, the difference is, whether the politician is elected directly by a popular vote, or indirectly as a member of a winning party or a coalition. Only with directly elected leaders is there the problem of possible cult of personality. A position filled by a party leader, that can be ousted by his/her party, shouldn't need term limits because the party members will get rid of such leader if unsatisfied with his qualities, performance or other criteria.

That said, there is still a risk with party leaders if those parties are themselves undemocratic, e.g. a populistic horde following one leader no matter what. Not to name any names, we have one in Czechia as a prime minister right now. All his party members are nothing but his acolytes. No party factions, no internal opposition, just like employees in a firm he owns (which many of them actually are).

So, directly elected leaders should always be limited in the duration of their rule. Leaders in parliamentary systems should not. And I have no effing clue what to do about the populists. Anyone?


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