Limits to Term Limits?

Rick Henderson's editorial "Darwinian Politics" (August/September) takes me to task for overselling the benefits of term limits. Henderson cites anti-libertarian votes from a number of freshman congressmen as evidence that term limits don't really work. But his argument is not compelling.

There are two main reasons to support term limits. The first is that power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton admonished us, and the longer someone is in Congress the more likely they are to be so corrupted. The evidence on this score is very much on the side of term limits. For all the bad votes that freshmen have made, their overall voting record in Congress is significantly better than Congress as a whole. Had the whole House voted as the freshmen did, for instance, the Clinton tax increase would have been defeated and the Penny-Kasich spending reduction package would have passed.

Indeed, studies by the Cato Institute and the National Taxpayers Union confirm that the longer people are in Congress, the bigger spenders they become, whether they're conservatives, liberals, or libertarians (if you can find one there). Thus, the facts support the first argument for term limits.

The second and stronger argument for term limits is that the current system yields an adverse selection process–a result of relatively few open seats (a challenger has a l-in-10 chance of beating an incumbent) and the fact that even if one does win one has to be there six to 10 years in order to have any significant influence in Congress. This discourages citizen legislators–the person who would prefer to be in the private sector but is willing to spend two or four years in Congress–from seeking office in the first place.

The point is, the so-called freshman "revolutionaries" in the House are not the product of term limits. They're the product of another process and another political culture. With three-term limits in the House, a culture would develop in which the majority of people serving would come for one or two terms and then go back to their preferred status in the private sector. This kind of legislative environment would bring a remarkable number of clear-thinking citizen legislators out of the woodwork and would also direct their attention more to repealing existing legislation rather than deferring to senior members of Congress who protect the bad laws we live under today.

So Rick Henderson is wrong. Term limits will have a profound impact on our ability to reduce the size and scope of government. The freshman class is better than Congress as a whole because of the first argument for term limits. It is not as good as it should be because of the second argument.

Edward H. Crane
Cato Institute
Washington, DC

Rick Henderson replies: I wish I were as confident as Ed Crane that people who elect statists to Congress will suddenly demand an end to federal largess once term limits are enacted. Voters in congressional districts that get an abundance of government subsidies–whether they support poor people, research facilities, or military operations–are likely to find somebody who will go to Washington and defend that stream of money, even if the candidate in question finds it makes more sense to rent real estate in D.C. rather than buy.

The only way to effectively shrink the federal government is to limit its reach to those powers enumerated in the Constitution–a goal Ed and I share. I still don't see how term limits will get us there.

Irish Ire

Michael McMenamin set the tone for his article, "Bill & Ted's Irish Misadventure" (August/September), in the opening paragraph, when he suggested that American officials were surprised and embarrassed by "the IRA's betrayal." This is plainly a misstatement of simple fact. There could have been no betrayal, since neither the IRA nor its political arm, Sinn Fein, ever made any promises to betray.

The facts, as McMenamin acknowledges elsewhere in his piece, are that in August 1994 the IRA declared a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire–which loyalist groups subsequently joined–in hopes of drawing all sides to the negotiating table. When, after nearly a year and a half, the Major government had not made the slightest move toward commencing talks (setting the patently absurd precondition that Irish nationalists effectively surrender first), the IRA canceled the ceasefire.

McMenamin is relentlessly critical of "the men of violence" and "those who refuse to renounce violence as a means to an end in a democratic society," which he applies to both nationalist and loyalist Irish. Occupying British troops are, of course, to be exempted from this characterization. Yet when Sinn Fein agreed to participate in an election to choose representatives to all-party talks (after initially refusing because it was seen–quite correctly, as it turned out–to be nothing more than a ruse and a delaying tactic) and polled 15 percent, the democratic process lost its allure. Because the IRA refused to reinstate the ceasefire it originally initiated, Sinn Fein was excluded anyway–which seems not only unfair and anti-democratic, but just plain stupid. If you're not going to include the IRA's representatives, what is the point of having talks about how to bring about a peaceful marriage of the factions in northeast Ireland? It's like going ahead with the wedding ceremony even though the groom won't be allowed to participate.

McMenamin seems to regard with contempt the assertion in the joint declaration of the right of the Irish people to national self-determination. REASON readers can only wonder how he would have viewed similar circumstances here had the American Revolution been settled by a treaty that left the northeast quarter of our country under British rule, consisting mostly of an area where they had first dispossessed Americans in favor of loyalist homesteaders and then sent in troops to squelch any resistance.

Libertarians who are fond of quoting Justice Brandeis's observation about the right most valued by civilized men should remember that "Sinn Fein" is Gaelic for "Ourselves Alone!"

Tim O'Brien

Mr. McMenamin's article on Occupied Ireland is sustainedly false. The following fundamental corrections will help:

  1. Ireland's British supremacist "majority" are actually 18 percent of the population (and 2 percent of Britain's).
  2. The people of Ireland never voted for partition; London imposed it unilaterally after Ireland's islandwide landslide vote of 1918 for complete independence from England.
  3. Counties Fermanagh and Derry are now, as ever, majority Irish, not British.
  4. British policy in Ireland has always been frankly genocidal and supremacist; former British Army Capts. Fred Holroyd and Colin Wallace courageously testify as to current British war crimes in Ireland.
  5. Since 1969, six times as many noncombatants have been murdered by British forces as by Irish ones. The first-, third-, and fourth-deadliest terrorist atrocities since 1969 were perpetrated by Britain's MI6 and army, not the IRA. Britain is Europe's most convicted practitioner of torture–of Irish POWs.
  6. According to their newspaper allocations of column inches to murders related to the Anglo-Irish conflict, Chicago editors believe the murder of a Briton by an Irish terrorist is a tragedy 350 times more newsworthy than the murder of an Irish person by a British terrorist. Most of the U.S. news media are similarly biased. Mr. McMenamin's plausibility depends upon such prior disinformation. Meanwhile, the Irish demand government of, by, and for, the people–emulating America's Founding Fathers, but using less violence.

Chris Fogarty
Vice Chairman
Friends of Irish Freedom
Chicago, IL

Michael McMenamin replies: Key to my article is the view that the Brits will bug out of Northern Ireland before they will suppress a violent Protestant/Loyalist reaction to any form of Irish unity acceptable to the IRA. The IRA welcomes the prospect of Loyalist violence because, despite the inevitable bloodshed and suffering on both sides, they do believe they will wade through the blood and emerge victorious. Where do O'Brien and Fogarty stand on this? Go back and read their letters and see for yourself. They don't seem to care. They're too busy blaming the British and appeasing the ghosts of the 1916 Rising to worry about a living Irish nation.

O'Brien, at least, has the courage to admit that Sinn Fein represents the IRA. That's as accurate as his letter gets. First, the claim that the IRA and Sinn Fein made no "promises" regarding an unconditional ceasefire is not true. Without such assurances from the IRA through Gerry Adams via a back channel to the White House, Clinton would never have issued visas to Adams or Joe Cahill in the summer of 1994. Such assurances were given. Clinton may be wrong on his Northern Ireland policy, but he's not a fool.

Next, O'Brien accuses me of exempting British troops from my criticism of the IRA and Loyalist terrorism. I didn't and I don't. Like Israel, British troops and the Irish Garda have methods of dealing with terrorism which civil libertarians do not condone. That's not the point. Neither British troops nor the Garda are a threat to the peace process. The private armies of the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries do pose such a threat.

Fogarty's letter reads like it was written at Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road in Belfast. When you realize there are people with views similar to Fogarty's on both sides in Northern Ireland, you can begin to appreciate why something as alien in today's America as widespread sectarian violence finds such a nurturing environment there. The points he raised in his letter are, for the most part, irrelevant.

  1. I didn't mention that Protestants were 18 percent of the total population of the island because I assumed REASON readers could figure that out from my reference to 900,000 Protestants in Northern Ireland and a total population in the two Irelands of 5 million.
  2. The 1918 vote in Ireland is not relevant, but even if it were, Ulster voted overwhelmingly against unification. What is relevant is that opinion polls today show that voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would vote against unification. Only a bare majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland support uniting the two Irelands, and people in the Republic wisely see no benefits from bringing a hostile minority into their comparatively peaceful society.
  3. Fermanagh and Derry were always part of Ulster. So was County Donegal until partition. What Fogarty really means when he says those two counties were always "majority Irish, not British" is that they were predominantly Catholic, not Protestant, i.e., if you're Protestant, you can't really be "Irish." This has sinister implications.
    What Fogarty doesn't tell you is that the IRA has been systematically engaging in ethnic cleansing in the rural areas of those two counties, so that there are substantially fewer Protestants there now than 20 years ago. Fogarty also doesn't tell you that the borders between Ireland and Northern Ireland were negotiated and agreed between Ireland and Britain in 1921, with the Irish delegation headed by Michael Collins, the legendary head of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who devised the guerilla tactics which won Ireland her freedom. The treaty was approved by the Irish Dail, and pro-treaty supporters won a substantial majority of the seats in the June 1922 general elections. In response, the IRA started a bloody civil war during which Collins was assassinated. That is the heritage which Fogarty defends and which the IRA again wishes to bring to all of Ireland.

  4. The genocidal, supremacist claim about Britain is arguably valid for much of pre-20th century history, but not as a serious position taken by any British government after 1906. And ever since 1921, the British have been trying to wash their hands of the whole thing. Only 25 percent in the U.K. favor keeping Northern Ireland as part of the U.K.
  5. Fighting terrorism isn't pretty. Neither the Brits nor the Israelis always play by rules which would pass muster under the Bill of Rights. Neither does the IRA, which regularly uses torture itself.

But the real difference between the British Army and the IRA is that the Brits will pack up their weapons and leave whenever a majority of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland ask them to in a free election. The IRA won't. People like Fogarty, with their talk of "occupied Ireland," are no better than your average Catholic-bashing, sash-wearing, derby-hatted, drum-beating Orangeman marching to celebrate a by-now meaningless battle fought over 300 years ago. They're part of the problem, not the solution.