According to a quote attributed to Milton Friedman, "there's nothing more permanent than a temporary government program". Is there any formal academic research into this concept, i.e. comparing the duration of "temporary" programs to "permanent" programs or analyzing the number of times a certain rule was extended to prevent it from lapsing?

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    Not my DV, but given the extent of China's measures that make travelling there a pain, it probably doesn't make much difference. Apparently the US is easing some restrictions on Chinese students though nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/… May 7, 2021 at 16:52
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    The government set up a board to study this very question; it's still investigating after many years...
    – DJohnM
    May 7, 2021 at 17:56
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    Temporary restrictions is not what the quote was about -- it's about programs. I'd say remove the second paragraph from your question. "The many New Deal programs still in existence seem to fit into this category." Also, "Note 1" mentions variations of the quote related to Federal grants.
    – Rick Smith
    May 7, 2021 at 18:15
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    I don't really have an answer, but implicitly most theories of institutional change deal with this question and tend to emphasize the incremental nature of change and the fact that most change is adaptive rather than dramatic. I guess this would also apply to institutions that were meant to be provisional (Thelen, Streeck, Hall). Then there is the literature on agenda dynamics, which at first seems to state the opposite: Policy agendas change suddenly. But also here, the point is that there are long periods of agenda stability, which are only occasionally "punctuated" (Baumgartner/Jones). May 7, 2021 at 18:20
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    @dandavis because taxes are a drain on society May 11, 2021 at 15:09

3 Answers 3


Is there any formal research into the concept of “nothing more permanent than a temporary government program”?
Is there any formal academic research into this concept, i.e. comparing the duration of "temporary" programs to "permanent" programs or analyzing the number of times a certain rule was extended to prevent it from lapsing?


The information to answer the question is scant and dated. I finally stopped trying to find a comprehensive source.

There is a question as to the context of Friedman's quote. Specifically, whether that quote refers to all programs or only those programs "started through grant funding," as indicated in the conclusion to the first summarized article, below. The article addresses temporary grant funding. The article claims that federal grant money results in on-going expenses to the state or local government, thus giving the temporary grant permanency.

In the second article, from a government commission in 1961, it is noted that "once a Federal grant begins, it never ends." While this is refuted, somewhat, it does show there were concerns about such grants after they began in earnest under Franklin Roosevelt. This article addresses reasons why temporary grants become permanent, as well.

In the working paper for "Do Intergovernmental Grants Create Ratchets In State And Local Taxes?", August 2010, the authors, in a section titled with Friedman's quote, note that

While one can find quotes from several notable individuals, such as this paper's opening quote by Milton Friedman, that state the observation that temporary programs tend to become permanent, it is worthwhile to briefly address the reasons why this may occur from the academic literature. Page 4

They reference other papers to address those reasons. Later, they note

Because it is impossible to break out data on federal grants into which funding is temporary versus permanent, we simply note that our data uses all federal grants and that therefore we need to interpret the results with this in mind. Page 6

In the conclusion, they claim

Our results clearly demonstrate that grant funding to state and local governments results in higher own source revenue and taxes in the future to support the programs initiated with the federal grant monies. Our results are consistent with Friedman's quote regarding the permanence of temporary government programs started through grant funding, as well as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's reasoning for trying to deny some federal stimulus monies for his state due to the future tax implications. Page 24

Also, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which existed from 1959 through 1996, did limited research in 1961. "Table 4," as mentioned below, identifies 14 grants that were terminated.

Periodic Congressional Reassessment of Federal Grants-In-Aid to State and Local Governments, June 1961

III. The Problem of Terminating or Redirecting Grants-In-Aid

On frequent occasions it is alleged that "once a Federal grant begins, it never ends." From a factual standpoint this allegation is almost but not quite correct. "Never" should be amended to "hardly ever." Table 4 lists those grants-in-aid from the National Government to the States which have been terminated.

This list is not impressive. With the exception of "general relief," none of the grants listed were in support of any continuing function of State or local government. On the other hand, there have been many efforts in the Congress aver the years to terminate or redirect particular grant programs. During the 1950's, at one time or another, recommendations were made either by the President or by special committees established to study particular programs, to cease, taper off, or otherwise modify a dozen or more major grant programs, including those for vocational education, resident instruction at land-grant colleges, school lunches, and school construction and operation in federally affected areas. In none of these instances did the Congress decide to discontinue the program in question.


The Commission notes two general obstacles to terminating or redirecting the grants, once they have served their purpose. In the first place, with the initiation of a new grant, vested interests--both governmental and private--in its continuation come into being. Subject matter staffs are created or expanded at National, State and local levels of government for the purpose of administering the grant program. Aside from any instincts of organizational self-preservation which may exist, these staffs, if they are competent and conscientious, acquire a sense of mission with respect to their particular program. Being responsible for a specific program or function they are not especially concerned with general problems of intergovernmental fiscal relations across-the-board, Consequently, their recommendations for change in the grant program are typically in the direction of expansion rather than contraction.

Furthermore, once a particular grant continues for a few years it becomes an integral part of State and local budgets and constitutes one of the assumed sources of revenue in the process of budgetary planning. With States and localities being always hard-pressed with respect to revenue sources, State and local officials naturally are averse to seeing a particular grant reduced or eliminated with the consequent necessity of diverting State or local funds to continue the function at the existing level. Also, those parts of the private sector of the economy which benefit from the grant program, such as professional organizations, suppliers of material, or the providers of services which are purchased with grant funds, are all interested in continuing the program. Attempts to reduce the amount of Federal contribution are resisted strongly, presumably on the premise that it is easier to defend an existing Federal appropriation than to obtain increased amounts from State or local funds.

Secondly, efforts to redirect grant programs toward newer and more urgent problems within a given program area usually result in an additive rather than a substitutive appropriation. This is illustrated by the history of Federal grants for vocational education. Some of the subject matter areas which the original act was designed to stimulate in the national interest have long ceased to have any commanding priority in terms of national manpower shortages. On the other hand, the vocational training of practical nurses and of electronic, chemical and other technicians has been federally stimulated, not by substituting the new for the old, but through retaining the old and adding the new.


The terms you're looking for are "Bureaucracy Lifecycle" and the cluster of related terms including Mission Creep

There are a number of scholars who have examined the ways in which government programs, as they outlive their original intentions, face an existential threat and since they are populated by people who crave employment, meaning, and prestige, act to expand their mission(s) so as to continue existing and garnering resources.


Here are two search results for "duration of temporary government programs":

Timely, Targeted, and Temporary? An Analysis of Government Expansions over the Past Century - Taylor & Castillo 2015, George Mason University, Mercatus Center [note, an ideologically libertarian institution]

This paper examines episodes of major government expansion during economic emergencies along with the contraction, or lack thereof, once the emergency has passed. We analyze broad measures such as federal government spending, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP. We conclude that most countercyclical spending programs do not follow the three Ts, which may undermine their ultimate effectiveness and explain why many economists are skeptical of such policies

Nothing So Permanent As Temporary Measures -- Donohue 2000, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and Int'l Affairs

Focusing closely on analysis and categorization of causes for the long duration of 20th century UK "emergency" policy in Northern Ireland,

This paper examines these questions and proposes that a confluence of primary factors and secondary circumstances – many of which are common to liberal, democratic states – perpetuated the emergency measures beyond their intended life.

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