The New York Times is reporting on the status of lawsuits to stop the repeal of New York City’s mayoral term limits, a repeal undertaken at the urging of current Mayor Bloomberg, who otherwise would be forced out at the end of his term.
I hate term limits on principle. I understand that that they are intended to help break the chokehold that connected incumbents can have over seats, but I find it too imprecise a remedy because it forces out from office those who are capable and accountable as much as it forces out those who are not.
That said, I find myself rooting for the lawsuits, because if there’s anything I hate more than term limits it’s the changing of the political rules to advance an individual’s own political career.
I don’t say this motivated by any personal animus towards Bloomberg. By all accounts he seems like a decent mayor, and if I lived in New York I might even have voted for him. But he understood the rules of the game from the outset, and it’s wrong to try to change them now just to extend his mayoral career.
True, I believe their repeal is good policy. But the time to have done it was in his first term, when his own personal political fortunes were not dependent on it. If it’s good policy for him it should have been good policy for anyone, but his timing suggests its hardly altruism motivating his repeal campaign. And that concerns me, just as it concerned me to have people try to change the US Consitution to allow foreign-born politicians become president — not because people wanted any foreign born politician to be able to become president but because the advocates of the change wanted to help one politician in particular.
Horrible things have happened to modern democracies when incumbents have been allowed to change the rules of the game to consolidate and entrench their power. I don’t mean to suggest that either Bloomberg or Schwarzenegger pose the same kind of harm as Hitler did in repealing the constitutional structure through which he was originally granted his power, but if it’s ok for good politicians to change the rules in a self-serving way then it will be ok for the bad ones to as well. For that reason, it’s important to stand on principle against these kinds of political maneuvers.
After all, it doesn’t always hurt the good ones anyway. For instance, even for the wonderful Mr. Bloomberg, he might never have become mayor in the first place if his predecessor had not been forced to yield before him.