About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

On “Flip-flopping”

Published in The Edge Malaysia, 10 Feb – 16 Feb 2014 as, “When Flip-Flopping Can Be Acceptable.”

At the end of my first semester of graduate school, an instructor of mine gave some advice to the class. He said that, wherever possible, we should always try to employ Bayesian reasoning in our everyday decision-making. In essence, Bayesian reasoning states that while we have some view or hypothesis of the world (defined as a “prior”), we should always continue updating our “priors” whenever we receive new and valid information pertaining to that particularly hypothesis of the world that we hold. A quote by John Maynard Keynes sums up this sentiment perfectly, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”

It may seem like a very trivial thing to say. After all, if we had always believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth, but we were now presented with concrete evidence that the opposite is true, we would probably update our prior to believing that the Earth revolves around the Sun. On the other hand, when we think back to some of the decisions or statements made by people we know – think of politicians – why do we get upset when they change their minds about a given position and why do we then accuse them of “flip-flopping?”

It is rather unfortunate for politicians that the public tends to look down on politicians who change their stances about a given topic. We can think of many such cases in Malaysia. For instance, the notorious PPSMI policy, the toll hikes proposal, and the oil price hike to RM2.80 in 2008. People tend to prefer politicians who are steadfast in their views and are unwavering in their stand on given issues. Yet, are we sure we want them to remain steadfast in their views if new evidence comes to light that contradicts these views?

I think it is perfectly acceptable if a given politician states her reversal on a particular position on a given topic if she finds new evidence that supports her new line of thought. This, of course, assumes that the new evidence is valid and robust. The same way I do not want myself holding on to outdated and antiquated thinking, I also do not want that of policymakers, lawmakers, politicians and so on. We certainly prefer our doctors to update their priors based on new medical evidence, why should we not prefer that of our politicians as well?

That being said, I contend that “flip-flopping” on policy issues is perfectly acceptable with a massive caveat. The caveat is that there must have been new evidence that came to light pertaining that particular policy issue that was persuasive enough for that politician to change her mind. Moreover, given that that policymaker is merely a custodian of the people, I think that that new evidence should be fully transparent. If the government chose to reverse the implementation of PPSMI, I would like them to explain transparently why they did so and to be perfectly open with regards to the evidence with which they used to decide on the policy change.

Along those lines, I think the lack of transparency in data and policy explanations is particularly worrying to me as a citizen. For one, if part of my tax money was used to fund national censuses or monthly business surveys, I like to think that I have the right to see the outcome of what my tax money was used for. If I paid a company to file my taxes, I think it is completely reasonable for me to see how exactly they ended up filing my taxes. Thus, I find it extremely disappointing that disaggregated anonymous firm or individual level data is not available for download on the Department of Statistics website.

Next, I am also very concerned that studies on policies in Malaysia by the government seem to happen ex post rather than ex ante. Cards on the table, I would strongly prefer that the government undertake a careful and rigorous study of a given policy issue or decision before implementing that given policy. I have been troubled by the lack of this. For instance, consider the recent toll hike issue. The Prime Minister stated in mid January that the Cabinet will only decide on the toll hike rate after conducting a detailed laboratory study and that the study would determine the best method to reduce the burden of road users. For the record, I am glad that a study is being done though I strongly believe that the study should have been conducted before any proposal to hike toll rates was announced. Why does the study come after the announcement? Should it not be before? Moreover, should decisions not be made on the basis of some new evidence rather than on the basis of evidence to come? A similar scenario took place back in 2009 as well, when the GST was first tabled in parliament. Why table something if a comprehensive study had not been undertaken yet? It is possible that a study had been undertaken but if so, why was the study not made publicly available to the people who would actually have to deal with the GST, i.e. the citizens?

I am comfortable with “flip-flopping” on policy issues by politicians, provided that the change in stance is guided by proper evidence and that initial decisions were also guided by proper evidence before the decision was made, and not after. I am genuinely concerned, given the ex post studies that seem to pervade Malaysian public policy, that neither of these conditions seem to be holding true in Malaysia. That said, I think an important distinction here needs to be made between flip-flopping on policy issues and flip-flopping on principles. We want our politicians (and our people) to be principled and to have integrity. Thus, if they say they are anti corruption, then they better not be involved in corruption. If they say they want free and fair democratic elections, then their means of obtaining public positions better be through free and fair democratic processes. A friend of mine very wisely puts it, “Principles should inform interests, interests should not inform principles.”

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