A DECADE ago, the government proposed legislation on the seemingly minor issue of plastic bags. The intention was ostensibly to reduce plastic bag pollution. The idea caught public attention and there was a somewhat predictable argument. In the end, some measures got legislated and it was, in some ways, a valuable learning experience on the pros and cons of government intervention.

At the time, the problem was that supermarkets were in the habit of absorbing the cost of plastic bags, which meant there was an incentive to overuse the facility. The result was both environmentally and aesthetically unacceptable.

Generally speaking, intervening to force supermarkets to sell rather than give away plastic bags was a good idea. Giving them a monetary value created an incentive to reuse bags, and a potential market for recycled plastic.

But that is where it all went wrong. Instead of a simple intervention, the government tried something more complex. First, it slapped a tax on plastic bags, and justified it on the basis that the revenue would be used to fund recycling. The Times reports that it now appears this was attempted but there was — inevitably it seems these days — corruption involved. Hence the Department of Environmental Affairs abandoned the recycling effort about two years ago.

Yet this did not mean the end of the tax, which costs shoppers about R200m a year. Money that was justified on the basis that it would be used to build recycling plants, now disappears into that black hole called the general fiscus.

There are all kinds of problems here. Why, for example, were we not told that the recycling effort had failed? Presumably, this was swept under the carpet because the department did not want to acknowledge it gave the job to corrupt people. Alternatively, when the people who took on the job started siphoning off cash, the department did not monitor the situation properly. If there was corruption, did it report the issue to the police, and was anyone arrested? We don’t know, but it does not seem so.

The issue may seem trivial, but it is typical of government over-reach. Politicians justify new taxes by promising to spend the money in a way that has public support, but that only lasts as long as the attention span of the public.