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Nothing is ever as permanent as a temporary government scheme — this must not be true after COVID19

Summary:
When the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889, it was expected to last for 20 years. So far, it has lasted for 131 years and counting. The London Eye, opened in the year 2000, had planning permission for 5 years, and it’s still there. Temporary things sometimes last. Where in this world can you find something that does that, something that endures through the changing times and the swings of fortune? Look no further than a temporary government programme. Although established to deal with short-term emergencies, they develop a life of their own, one that struggles to survive into perpetuity.Nowhere is this more true than of temporary taxes. These are often levied by government to provide the funds for a short-term emergency, but they provide such a useful source of revenue that subsequent

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When the Eiffel Tower was erected in 1889, it was expected to last for 20 years. So far, it has lasted for 131 years and counting. The London Eye, opened in the year 2000, had planning permission for 5 years, and it’s still there. Temporary things sometimes last. 

Where in this world can you find something that does that, something that endures through the changing times and the swings of fortune? Look no further than a temporary government programme. Although established to deal with short-term emergencies, they develop a life of their own, one that struggles to survive into perpetuity.

Nowhere is this more true than of temporary taxes. These are often levied by government to provide the funds for a short-term emergency, but they provide such a useful source of revenue that subsequent governments are reluctant to forgo them, long after the emergency is over.

Income Tax was introduced in 1799 by Prime Minister William Pitt as a temporary measure to fund the war against Napoleon. It still survives 221 years later, and although it was introduced at only 6d in the pound, or two-and-a-half percent, it now features a top UK rate of 45 percent. 

Bismarck introduced a tax on champagne to fund the construction of Germany’s Grand Sea Fleet. The remains of that fleet now decay on the ocean’s floor, but Germany still taxes champagne. It is a good working rule of thumb that taxes brought in for a specific purpose will eventually be used to fund the general expenses of government.

The same is true of other temporary programmes. The bureaucrats who staff the new agencies find subtle ways to sustain them when their original use is gone. They redefine the problem to make it endure. When poverty is largely solved, they redefine it as a percentage of median income, to make it true that “the poor ye shall always have with you,” along with the agencies and staff that deal with it.

Sometimes they extend the scope of their agency, to give it other matters to attend to, ones that will necessitate keeping its personnel in their jobs. Sometimes they change its purpose entirely, ostensibly to confront the problems of changing times, but in reality, to keep themselves in gainful employment. This is probably why Milton Friedman observed that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government programme. 

All of this is pertinent to what will happen after the pandemic crisis is over. Those in government and its bureaucracy will press for ways to keep in being the new bodies set up to handle it, and to retain the powers acquired to mitigate it. The agencies and the powers must be retained, they will say, to be ready to deal with similar emergencies in the future. 

No. Those who favour freedom should ensure that both the agencies and the new powers are done away with when the emergency is gone. If they are needed in future, they can be enacted in future, just as they were this time. They should not be retained in the interim at great cost to taxpayers and to their personal liberties. Temporary must not become permanent. 

In ancient Rome, the slave in the chariot was there to remind the triumphal general beside him that all glory is fleeting. The same is not true, alas, of temporary government programmes and powers.

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