Mandatory Minimums

What with the Democratic Convention starting today in Denver and the U.S. Open starting today in Flushing, I wanted to talk a little bit about term limits, in particular about New York City's term limits for city-wide officials, and even more particularly about the poor quality of an anti term-limit Editorial in the New York Times (though their 1993 and 1996 anti term-limit pieces were worse). The main problem with the most recent editorial is that it uses a little known form of cost/benefit analysis called, “Ignore all benefits.” It does mention potential positives, but only in the most perfunctory way. The piece says,
Term limits are undeniably seductive. They seem to promise relief from mediocre, self-perpetuating incumbents and from gridlocked legislatures in places like Albany.
. . .
The deceptive charm of term limits is that they automatically purge the system of rascally politicians.
Everything else in the piece is about how term limits mean that you can't elect someone for more terms than the limited amount, even if they're really good at being mayor, like the sainted Mike Bloomberg. But that's just saying that there are costs to term limits. If it weren't the case that term limits frequently mean that an option voters would prefer (who may also be the best option substantively) couldn't run for office then it would never occur to anyone to put them in place. On the other hand, the three sentences quoted above give scant attention to serious problems with incumbent entrenchment. Because being an incumbent means you can write laws, make decisions, dole out favors and otherwise do stuff you can't do as a mere candidate, it's very difficult for non-incumbents to oust incumbents. It sometimes happens when disasters take place on the incumbents watch (Bush), people don't like the trend the country is going in (Bush), or feel they are otherwise worse off (Bush), but incumbent reelection rates in the United States are in general much higher than can be explained by anything other than various systemic biases which favor incumbents. Anti-incumbent efforts are surely needed.

If one wants to argue against term limits (link is to an old post in which I suggest that Democrats in Congress should try to pass a constitutional amendment to remove presidential term limits so that Bush could run again and destroy the Republican party, it doesn't discuss the substantive merits of such a proposal), talk about how they go too far in that direction, and that some more limited anti-incumbency reforms would be better. Don't claim that getting rid of incumbents means chaos because no one with experiential knowledge remains since staff below a certain level generally and in some agencies at all levels won't turn over just because an incumbent leaves, talk about actual examples of new officials not having knowledge that the ousted incumbent would have, and ways that hurt the city. But that might be a problematic argument to make, since the Times thought the chaos caused by the term limit laws would start following the 2001 election cycle, but now seems pretty happy with the way things are running. Oh, and don't act like limits on voter choice of candidate which are voted into existence by those very voters are generally wrong because anti-democratic.

I wanted here to provide other examples of restrictions on voter choice which are obviously good, but I'm actually having more trouble thinking of an unambiguously good restriction than I'd expected. Residency requirements seem like the most obvious choice, but the counterpoint that if a non-resident candidate can get the most votes, why not let people elect them seems to apply for at least some offices. So I'll go ahead and say different limits on voter choice are good ideas depending on the characteristics of the office being run for, and in particular the more powerful an office the better an idea term limits are, and the Mayor of New York City is substantively quite powerful and should be term limited.

[Edited for clarity on 9/30]