As of late, I have observed the clamoring for congressional term limits. I understand this expression of the American mind to be a very bad thing in itself, and very bad in its consequences.
Thucydides understood the three impulses leading us to clamor as action, money, and power.
We are angered that no action is taken when there are so many problems in need of resolution. We become further angered that our representatives are amassing wealth and refusing to produce value for our society. All of this leads us to feel powerless and unimportant in a regime supposedly fashioned to suit the needs of We the People.
What I hate most about this election cycle is that it has highlighted the vices of our country. Meaningless soundbites have divided an otherwise prosperous and peace loving people, coercing them into the belief that government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was not a promise reserved for the posterity of Washington, but only for those few favored by chance. I hate it because it makes for bad citizens- citizens who would rather resort to mob rule than moderate themselves by deliberation and choice. I hate it because it inclines good citizens to resort to unsound arguments and untruths- a clear submission to the lie of tyrants that might makes right. I hate it because it undermines the patriotism that our country so needs if we are to sustain our favored freedom at home rather than the shackles and shame of the backward nations across the globe. I hate the apathy assumed by my fellow citizens who I know are inclined to good, but consider their very voice powerless under what they believe to be the weight of a government instituted to protect the lives and livelihoods of a fortunate few. But most of all, I hate it because it causes me to tremble in fear that this last best hope for freedom may perish from this Earth, and our posterity will rebuke myself and my generation for its abatement.
The crux of freedom, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, is that it suggests the “idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man”. We, being free people, assume that the principle of freedom promises the prospect of limitless progress. We Americans are never satiated, and are held in the constant fancy that we may always, in some way, improve our lot. There always has been, and is, contrary to popular belief, an expanse of opportunity open to each individual in this country. We are free to move from sea to shining sea, and are at liberty to reorder our lives at the drop of a hat if we so wish. Recent studies show that Americans on average change careers seven times within one lifetime. We Americans love change, and when our opportunity for change is limited we lament. The same is true with our public policy. We wish to change it, and change those who have the ability to change it, because we are constantly reinventing new beliefs regarding justice.
Tocqueville generally saw this as a blessing among Americans, but it was nonetheless a problematic blessing, as all earthly blessings are. Because of our tendency for constant change, when we create things our intention is never that they may last long. Because we have freedom to think, we constantly envision the opportunity to create something better, and we constantly desire to improve upon what we have previously created. James Madison saw this as a political vice in need of restraint. In Federalist 62, he claims,“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” This is where we now find ourselves. The recent Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Act marked legislation applicable to every citizen of the United States and ran 20,000 pages long and growing. Within the time it would take one to read the act, you could read the United States Constitution 4,000 times. Because of our love of constant improvement, and our be the change belief system, we have laws on the books that we cannot possibly take the time to read, nevertheless understand and habituate ourselves to faithfully observe. In Lincoln’s Lyceum Address he urges “a reverence for the constitution and the laws”. How can we possibly revere a law that would take a lifetime to read?
The belief in the “indefinite perfectibility of man” goes further, applying to our elected officials as well. Because we are a people who believe in progress and goodness, and a people who see injustice each and every day, we want to create parchment barriers to bar injustice. We are a sympathetic people who believe ourselves robbed of the opportunity to exercise our help to a people who most need it. We have been promised equality, but we constantly see those around us lacking the means to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.
I, like Tocqueville and Madison, believe this sentiment to be an honorable one, but a problematic one. At one point in our nation’s history we attempted to pass legislation to perfect the art of growing raisins. Believe it or not, this attempt at perfection still plagues us today. The same legislation just reached the Supreme Court in 2015 in the case Horne vs. United States Department of Agriculture. Often times it is more difficult to repeal bad laws than to pass good ones. The more bills that are voted upon in congress, the more the opportunity to perfect existing laws or repeal problematic laws diminishes. Agricultural marketing orders were once introduced as depression era regulations meant to stabilize crop prices. They now endanger the livelihoods of small farmers across the country, and the raisin marketing orders are particularly egregious. Under the USDA the Raisin Administrative Committee decides what the proper yield of raisins should be in any year and meet to decide an equitable price for the raisins that small farmers grow. Each year, they force every raisin farmer to surrender a percentage of their crop to a reserve pool that cannot be sold in the U.S. As the profit margins of raisin farmers have diminished over the years due to low tariffs on foreign raisins rendering them cheaper than those grown in California, the annual return of the farmers has dwindled. In 2003 farmers received zero dollars in return for the 47% of their product that they were forced to surrender to the federal government. Imagine yourself living on 53% of your family’s annual income in order to fulfill an almost hundred year old marketing order that promised the perfection of the industry in which you find yourself. Similar regulations exist for nectarines and mandarins under the USDA. Did you know that your fruit is color tested, and even “squish” tested? The lesson being: the more distance between the people and their laws, the more ridiculous they become. The higher the laws aim, the more laws are passed. The more laws that are passed, the smaller your opportunity becomes as a citizen to repeal laws that harm you.
The bottom line is that perfection through government may not be possible, and our lawmakers and enforcers may not be angels. We have seen this in the news as of late. But the regime in which we live was fashioned in order that men may better order their lives to become prosperous without the interference of a wicked few attempting to eat the bread that we earn from the sweat of our brows. Perfection is the aim of the individual, protection is the duty of government so that the individual may pursue that perfection. In regards to term limits for your elected officials my advice is what Lincoln learned through experience. If you wish to change public policy to establish justice, leave your law office and participate in politics. Write to your congressman. Read the laws that are being passed in Congress. Withhold your vote if your voice is not being heard. Create a coalition with those in your locality to participate in local and national elections. If your voice is not heard, ensure that your voice will be heard and that you may be better represented. And as Lincoln implores, “Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong”. It is no easy task, but it is your civic duty and it is in your interest.
Madison feared that the constant reintroduction of new legislation would undermine recognition of the law. Lincoln understood that the inability to recognize the law made it difficult to revere the law and the country to which you owe so much. Tocqueville urged that limiting the years a man may serve would get rid of bad men, but would bar good men from the opportunity to exercise their good judgment.
It has occurred to me that this may not be the most contentious of elections in the annals for our nation’s history. All popular elections are wrought with partisan objection and petty politics. Many elections have been comprised of scandal, as politics always has. The difference in this election being the lacking strength and organization of parties and their ability to restrain their candidates, and the opinion of the people that their votes don’t matter much. This causes them to believe the system broken, and the promise of freedom frittered away. We grope for some ground upon which we may feel that we are in some sense represented. We demand more legislation to mitigate the multitude of duplicity that is the product of our own demands. Public opinion, what Lincoln would refer to as that thing “Upon which our Union rests”, gropes for more action among representatives, more equality, more for the individual, for the group to which the majority belongs, more freedom to do as they please with things that they have not yet earned.
Wrong as we think this current trend in popular government is, we cannot forget the lives lain down for our freedoms. Let us be diverted by none of those sophistical contrivances wherewith we are so industriously plied and belabored. Let us not be dissuaded by such attitudes as “don’t care” on a question about which all true men do care. Do not bow to such disrespect to your grandfathers who did choose to fight, begging and imploring all good citizens to unsay what great things they said and undo what they did. Let us have faith that we still have a stake in this government of ours, and let us understand that God commends our efforts on this small stage of life.