policy reversals can be excessive

FT ‘undercover economist’ Tim Harford has no problem with policymakers reversing course when necessary, but finds that Donald Trump and Theresa May, leaders of the US and the UK, do it so often that they are “spinning policy doughnuts” rather than making U-turns.

For many government policies, it’s important to have an emergency stop to prevent bad ideas getting worse. But Mr Trump and Mrs May are like train passengers who hit the emergency stop because they’re having a nice chat on the phone and don’t want to be interrupted by a tunnel. There should be a penalty for misuse — and perhaps there will be.

I have no objection to bad ideas being reversed, but the problem here is that the reversals have been so nakedly political.

A wise policymaker changes course thus: “We had a promising idea, we tried it out on the smallest practical scale, we gathered data, we expanded our pilot programme, and then once the evidence was in, we decided that the idea wasn’t working. We’ve learned a lesson and will stop.”

Such changes of direction are what grown-ups do — and any well-run country should expect to see them regularly. Unfortunately there is no sense that either Mr Trump or Mrs May have changed direction on anything because they have been moved by new evidence on whether it works. Instead, they promised what seemed popular, and flinched at the first glimpse that it may not be popular at all.

Tim Harford, “Donald Trump and Theresa May give U-turns a bad name“, Financial Times, 26 May 2017 (metered paywall).

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