Few men have been desperate enough to attack openly, and barefaced, the liberties of a free people. Such avowed conspirators can rarely succeed. The attempt would destroy itself. Even when the enterprise is begun and visible, the end must be hid, or denied. It is the business and policy of traitors, so to disguise their treason with plausible names, and so to recommend it with popular and bewitching colours, that they themselves shall be adored, while their work is detested.

—John Trenchard. Cato’s Letters No. 17, What Measures are actually taken by wicked and desperate ministers to ruin and enslave their Country, Saturday, February 18, 1721.

Underhanded schemes require subtlety, misdirection and, above all, time. Corrupt leaders can do little damage if they are changed out, like an aircraft part, long before their corruption can cause damage. Aircraft parts are changed out not because they have failed, or even demonstrated a weakness, but in order to ensure safety. So it should be with politicians; if they are swapped out regularly, all they have occasion to achieve is that which they are supposed to do. There is no safety in democracy alone because entrenched leaders manipulate its safeguards until it becomes worthless. Even good leaders become corrupted by prolonged exposure to power. The patriot, who in the beginning declares his life at the disposal of his country, in the end becomes ready to risk destroying his country rather than give up power. John Trenchard gave this example:

Pericles had long and arbitrarily lavished away the public money to buy creatures, and perpetuate his power; and, dreading to give up his accounts, which the Athenians began to call for, thought that he had no other way to avoid doing this justice to his country, but by adding another great crime to his past crimes. He would venture the ruin of the commonwealth, rather than be accountable to it. He therefore threw all things into confusion, raised armies, and entered precipitately into a war with Lacedaemon; which, after much blood, misery, and desolation, ended in the captivity of his country. (Cato’s Letters No. 112, Fondness for posterity nothing else but self-love, such as are friends to public liberty, are the only true lovers of posterity, Saturday, January 19, 1723.)

How can the virtues of a man like Pericles be harnessed while at the same time avoiding the catastrophe that follows entrenched power? There is only one way: term limits. The mastermind must be thanked for efforts and thereafter forever kept away from power. Let him write books, propose laws, give interviews on television, make speeches, do all he wants to influence public events, but do not let him return to power. History tells us the greatest dangers come from the most seemingly able leaders. Men like Pericles, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Napoleon and Bismarck administer the government with great competence but break down the bulwarks of liberty. As Algernon Sidney noted: “The like may be said of the Romans, from the expulsion of the Tarquins till they overthrew their own orders, by continuing Marius for five years in the consulate, whereas the laws did not permit a man to hold the same office two years together; and when that rule was broken, their own magistrates grew too strong for them, and they subverted the commonwealth.” (Discourses Concerning Government, 1689.)

In the final analysis the ‘wisdom’ and ‘profound foresight’ of political geniuses to whom a people utterly entrust themselves will always prove miserable and ruinous folly. Any time a people give themselves over to what they believe is a superior being for guidance, in reality what they have really signed up for is unimaginable misery and generational suffering. True political wisdom and profound foresight can only be found in the experience of the ages, and it does not take a genius to read books and discover it.

It is for this reason that a wise people should view with suspicion any politician who addresses them with words such as ‘hope’, ‘new beginnings’, ‘will’, ‘challenges’, ‘enduring spirit’, ‘happiness’, ‘prosperity’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, and other platitudes without actually going into the specifics of their principles and policies. Such demagogues are essentially saying, “I will not tell you what I am going to do, I will simply dangle these pleasant sounding baubles before you and you should trust me.” Those who claim that their personal charisma, audacity for change, intuition or willpower can somehow bring prosperity and peace are not saviors but rather enemies of the people—even if they do not know it.

A common argument against term limits is that chopping and changing prevents worthy undertakings from being pursued. This implies that some worldly technocrat, after using his charisma to dupe the people into handing over their freedom, can do great things for them, if only the people are barred from preventing him from exercising his superior wisdom. This was the logic behind the Decemvirate, Sulla’s dictatorship, Caesar’s dictatorship for life, and Hitler’s Enabling Act. This logic is not only abhorrent to the right of self-government but has consistently proven disastrously misguided in practice. In a free country, each trustee lays down his charge, and the next trustee continues the good work. When innovations are required, they do not emerge spontaneously from the beady brain of a brilliant politician. Rather they are subject to rigorous and lengthy debate and refinement, both in the legislature and among the general public, before finally being passed into law.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove