The case for autocratic term limits

To the extent many people think they have some chance of reaching the very top, political and party mechanisms may attract more first-rate talent.  Furthermore, information transmission decays when more and more of the rent-seeking is aimed at the very top person, and that person does not turn over with time.  Do not report the complete truth!  That rise in toadying further discourages top talent from entering into political competitions.

When this happens, it is also a sign that a political system has lost some of its ability to protect autocratic leaders after their terms are up, so this can be as much symptom as cause of bad events.


I do not understand the use of the term "rent-seeking" in this post. Does it mean anything other than "bad, socially unproductive behavior"? I don't see how hoarding or misreporting information permits the actor to earn returns higher than what he would receive in his next best alternative activity, which is what economic rent means.

'Economic rent' does mean that, but 'rent-seeking' has come to mean something else, basically:

the fact or practice of manipulating public policy or economic conditions as a strategy for increasing profits.

"cronyism and rent-seeking have become an integral part of the way our biggest companies do business"

I thought "rent-seeking" was limited to certain strategies, e.g., gaining monopoly power by licensing restrictions imposed on potential competitors. (That is obviously one way to earn economic rents.) If it just means "trying to win favors from autocratic governments," then it doesn't mean much.

Not just increasing profits but rather increasing subsidies and outright welfare; any kind of "free stuff".

Sure, but kind of redundant, subsidies and 'welfare' = greater profits.

"Rent-seeking" goes back to Ricardo., so it well precedes our present situation.

Large defense contractors seek rents. It's their specialization. It's possible for
a contractor to spend more than the contract is worth just bidding the contract.

But rent-seeking is certainly not limited to government contracting. If the government
is 25% of GDP, and that market exhibits significant incumbent bias, then that's not much
of a strategy. Apple certainly didn't follow it but you're kidding me if you don't think
they're rent-seekers.

Rule of thumb: anything that sounds like Murray Rothbard is probably worn out :)

"... political and party mechanisms may attract more first-rate talent. "

political and party mechanisms actively repel first-rate talent (from the general citizenry perspective)

there has never been any "first-rate talent" in American government.

This is the classic political fallacy -- government works great if we just get 'right' people in charge.

Never is pretty harsh and probably not accurate, but there sure hasn't been much in the last few decades.

'there has never been any “first-rate talent” in American government'

Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton - second raters at best, right?

As for George Washington, well, here is a historian's perspective - 'Stephen Brumwell, author and specialist on eighteenth century North America, said: "Washington scores highly as an enemy of Britain on three key grounds: the immense scale of damage he inflicts upon Britain's Army and Empire – the most jarring defeat that either endured; his ability to not only provide inspirational battlefield leadership but to work with civilians who were crucial to sustain the war-effort; and the kind of man he was. As British officers conceded, he was a worthy opponent."'

Technically speaking Hitler and Wilhelm II were the two men who inflicted the greatest damage on the British Empire and not remotely Washington. Since the UK was a superpower in 1913 by 1946 was a middle power dependent on American foreign aid. The US's independence didn't affect the British Empire's relative power in fact it increased: the UK was much more powerful in 1830 than in 1770 relative to other European countries.

In terms of talent I might guess that Trump is the most talented politician the US had in the last 30 years: managed to get elected against impossible odds, manages to act in ways that other politicians though was impossible, managed to go directly against the ruling elites interests for a while (although he has mostly converged back to the neocon policies of his republican pals in recent months). Of course, I am not suggesting Trump is actually talented, he is just more talented than the rest of the political establishment.

If you think about it for a minute, you'll realize that Tyler is not discussing America.

Yes, I assumed it was the recent China/Xi term limit development. And presumably Putin, too. But I don't get it - if you're a first rate talent in Russia, well, yes, you're not in the running for the top job (unless you're REALLY good (and brave)) - but not sure what that discourages you from.

In the old days, when politicians were rewarded for getting things done, seniority mattered. Not so in the new days, when politicians are rewarded for blocking things from getting done; indeed, in the new days, it's better for politicians to have no seniority and no ability to get things done. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that Cowen prefers the new days.

All of the CCP bigwigs are kleptocrats, and know that the only thing keeping them out of trouble is that they were on the right side of Xi. And they have seen what trouble looks like because their peers have been taken down in the anti corruption campaign. If Xi is term limited, he is unable to continue protecting them because who knows what loyalties the next leader will have. According to the logic of the dictator's handbook, Xi must offer credible guarantees to his coalition or risk being replaced. And the way to offer credible guarantees is to stay in power.

So the Deng revolution is over.

That is the problem with a close political system like China. Once he started turning on people he started a vicious cycle. He is an emperor now. His needs to be in power for at least 50 years to maintain stability or China will collapse.

And Trump is starting us down that path with his attacks on Hillary. If Trump succeed in putting Hillary in jail the gloves will come off from the Democrats. We may have a civil war in the near future if Trump succeeds.

So who exactly is going to wage a civil war against Trump and his supporters? The #MeToo movement? The "Dreamers"?

"And Trump is starting us down that path with his attacks on Hillary. If Trump succeed in putting Hillary in jail the gloves will come off from the Democrats."

I suspect that if the Democrats succeed in impeaching Trump, it will be just as bad. Both Hillary and Trump should be held accountable if either one broke any substantive law, on the other hand, neither should be harshly treated by the other side for minor violations. It's questionable if we can intentionally reach a reasonable middle ground, however, our system may well end up there.

China is a Maximum Meritocracy. Of course the basic game is rigged and complex ( and has been there since the Mandarins ) but the people who hold power there are the sorts Americans seem to prefer in their meritocratic dreams - engineers, a lot. If anything, they've leapfrogged us in terms of meritocracy. In a way.

This was truer before than now, of the Chinese communists. The days of only engineers in top roles is waning, and almost every tiger is a princeling.

I think there is a case to be made for Xinophobia.

I'll say this for the internet - it's got a lot of funny people on it. (Nice one.)

I don't see why rent seeking should necessarily increase.

For example, if Trump were able to serve for the rest of his life and assume more autocratic powers, he might be able to really implement the policies for which he was elected, specifically with respect to immigration. If he were able to shut down illegal immigration, deport illegal immigrants, restrict legal immigration, and shut down policies such as H1B visas, this would drastically reduce rent seeking, both public and private, in the economy. Public sector rent seeking would decrease because the government funds directed towards immigrants and immigration related activity would decrease, and because Democrats would no longer be able to use immigrant votes to win elections. Private sector rent seeking would decrease because private employers would no longer have access to government policy enabled cheap labor that lowers their costs and increases profits.

We need term limits for (((Kingmakers))).

"Term limits" in the 1990s begat the Newt Gingrich-es and DIck Armey-es.

Then their term limits kicked in.

So we got... the Neocons. Too much RINOs, so we get the New! Improved! Tea
Party, followed by the present lot. Turns out the improvement is principally cost
reduction in the linguistic centers...

So it's anything but clear that at least in the US, term limits are very productive.
You need a smattering old back benchers to make the deals that
need to be made when you need them made.

Then they should be in the executive branch.

+1 The success of China in particular is highly correlated to the effectiveness of the bureaucracy. It's not only the only institution that can make the Chinese economy hum, it literally defines Chinese identity and ethos! This is a worrying sign to say the least.

Yes, this was a good TC post, but realistically, how many people in the Politburo are essential to the Chinese economy, and who cares if they wil never have a chance to be president? No big loss to China. Lower down, in the ordinary bureaucracies, it's a different matter.

The lower bureaucracies are exactly the reason this is such a negative development. The average age of incumbents at all levels will increase as opportunities for young people to join politics decrease. The days where a 40 year old could conceivably rise to be mayor of a major city are essentially over. Instead, you'll have people who do a "good enough job" ruling cities for decades.

I wonder how this sits with Xi's Harvard-educated daughter (or the many other foreign educated children of the Politburo). Perhaps Xi's move was defensive, knowing that if the children of the current leadership rise to take power, they will dismantle the authoritarian state.

Why is it worrying? It's their country, they can very well do as they please. No skin off my back.

The US has a nice relationship with China since 1972. China and it's capitalism are aspirational. In the 1950s the 3rd world (Mao's definition) wanted to be like Russia, in the 2010s, the 3rd world wants to be like China.

It's quite similar to observing a hurricane from a satellite. The storm does as it pleases, but it's worth to find out where it goes.

If people are really good policy makers, they should move into the executive branch.

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