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Artillery Row

This too shall pass

People want their pre-covid lives back. It falls on the vigilant to make sure that happens

The wise King Solomon was once asked by a Sultan whose name has passed from memory for a sentence, to be ever in view, which would be true and appropriate in all times and in all situations. 

In response the great monarch of biblical myth is said, by the testimony of the Sufi poet Rumi, to have given the following words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” 

Abraham Lincoln, a man who took his nation from through civil war and delivered it from slavery described it thus: “How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

It is tempting, in the depths of our own affliction to think of these great men and the long-last of the impact of their works, and think this moment too is a moment of permanence. But it most likely isn’t. This too shall, and indeed must, pass. 

What does stay is what we write down and make law. So we must question at every step those that wish to take our present pains, restrictions, and controls and extend them beyond the immediate. 

Those clamouring for change are ignoring what people are actually do when they’re free again. As lockdowns are lifted, we see people returning to beaches, restaurants and the office, to picnics and family gatherings. 

In places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea, people resume doing the things they did before, anxious to put the restrictions behind them as they seek the comforting reassurance that this has been a temporary blight endured, a blip of hard times gone through, not to be forgotten, but to be remembered and talked of as an ordeal endured and happily overcome.

Looking at their revealed preferences, which is what they do, rather than their expressed preferences, which is what they say to opinion pollsters and others, we find that they do what they did before. 

They socialise, they celebrate, they try to better their lives, they relax with friends and family, they interact with their fellow citizens. Between them they make up a vibrant society of people living lives as they see fit and as they want.

This disappoints the commentators who strive to remake society to conform to what they think it should be like, and who view every crisis, indeed, every hiccup, as an opportunity to impose such a transformation against the grain of human nature. 

They tell us that things will never be the same afterwards, and should not be so.

Depending on their particular hobby horses, they claim that society as we have known it is gone forever, and must now be replaced by a new and better society that can be moulded by men from on high. 

It might be a new green revolution that curbs and diverts economic activity, or a more socialist society that prevents some become vastly more rich than others, or perhaps a more woke society that encourages virtue signalling and promotes identity above, and at the expense of, real achievements and advances. 

Most of these visions of a new world emerging from the ashes of the old apparently involve inhibiting economic growth by diverting activities into what are deemed by their adherents to be more worthwhile, rather than gaining the opportunities that growth makes possible. Or freeing people in pursuit of their happiness. 

These utopians seize upon the restrictions and limits to personal freedoms and choices that the pandemic has necessitated, and call for them to be maintained after its passing. What people have endured to surmount a crisis must now, they say, become permanent, in order to remake a better and more just society.

In the UK, we’ve been here before. The sacrifices and privations, the shortages and the rationing, that were needed to defeat the tyranny of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, were quickly abandoned by most countries, but retained for years in the UK in the cause of remaking a socialist society to replace the pre-war order. 

Countries that discarded the wartime restrictions soon boomed and prospered. Germany and Japan, laid low by their own hubris in the war, rose again in stature and wealth as their people embraced the liberal values we seeded. All the while the UK languished. For decades. We held ourselves back by state controls, by those that built a centrally directed economy, and by our timidity as a free people to take back control from them. Britain became “the sick man of Europe”. 

The end of the pandemic crisis will mark a crossroads. The UK can choose to go for growth — understanding that only growth can repay the costs incurred in overcoming that crisis. It can remove the regulations and restrictions, and lower the taxes and the compliance costs that hold back start-up and expanding enterprises. It can make space for the ingenuity and invention that can push the economy back onto an upward climb to restore prosperity and the choices it brings. Or it can keep in place the limits and their liabilities, and try to direct a narrower society into the paths that those in authority would prefer it to follow.

It will be a difficult and momentous choice, not least because measures introduced as temporary expedients have a habit of acquiring their own permanence. William Pitt’s “temporary” income tax, introduced to fund the fight against Napoleon’s armies, is still with us, despite the danger being somewhat diminished. Bismarck’s “temporary” champagne tax, brought in to finance the construction of a German Grand Fleet, is still being levied, long after that fleet was sunk. 

The Eiffel Tower, erected in 1889 to last 20 years is still there today, and the London Eye, permitted to turn for 5 years from 2000, is now a seemingly permanent part of London’s skyline. 

Milton Friedman observed that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government programme. They survive because those in power, or with the ear of power, want them to, and because too many people with too much access and influence have a vested interest in maintaining them. 

As public choice theory tells us, bureaucrats seek to maintain their employment and their responsibilities, and to expand their budgets and areas of competence. 

Governments tend to keep in place the powers and taxes introduced to deal with emergencies, but subsequently found too helpful a money raiser by politicians to be easily forgone. The “temporary” can all too easily become permanent unless a watchful citizenry is determined to put an end to its temporary sacrifices and limits, and to restore the freedoms and the way of life it previously enjoyed. 

Those who favour freedom must now act to ensure that the new bodies and the new powers set up to cope with the pandemic are swept away in its aftermath. 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. 

People, given the chance and the choice, show that they want to exercise again the way of life they enjoyed before. It falls upon the vigilant to make sure that they can.

We can regain our freedom and prosperity, if we remember the watchwords of all horrors this dark hour: “And this, too, shall pass away.” 

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