Long Live the King? Death as a Term Limit on Executives

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Smith, Daniel J.
Crowley, George R.
Lequizamon, J. Sebastian
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Can informal term limits place binding constraints on executives? And, are there conditions under which an electorate would forego formal term limits in favor of informal term limits? Formal term limits face three primary problems: they can be dispensed by powerful executives, they limit electorate discretion on term length, and they artificially shorten an executive’s time horizon. This paper extends the literature on term limits by building a model of informal term limits which overcomes these deficiencies. Our model demonstrates that an electorate could use the death of a lifetime-appointed executive, based on their projected life expectancy, to enforce binding, informal term limits. Informal term limits would enable the electorate to exercise discretion in adjusting tenure lengths when considering the tradeoff between the expected benefits of regime stability, such as experience, and the expected costs of long tenures, including the possibility of tyranny. In addition, this informal term limit would be congruent with an executive’s natural time horizon. Informal term limits would be most advantageous to an electorate fearful of both internal (tyranny) and external (military conquest) threats. A historical case study of ducal elections in late Middle Age and Renaissance Venice provides evidence of an electorate in this circumstance, the patricians of Venice, imposing informal term limits on their executives utilizing the projected life expectancy of ducal candidates at election.
Term Limits, Public Choice, Venice, Economic History