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Goodhart’s Law and the multiple covid cock-ups

Paul_Bonhomme,_2010_Red_Bull_Air_Race,_New_York

The speech which gave rise to the law that now bears Professor Charles Goodhart’s name was actually called ‘Problems of Monetary Management’. It was a comparatively dry piece of econometrics at a conference called by the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1975, the participants mainly being eminent monetary economists.

In his discussion of the new-fangled doctrine of monetary targeting, Goodhart suggested that ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’ 

It seems extraordinary that his self-styled ‘throwaway remark’ on monetary targets should now be in the social theory textbooks as ‘Goodhart’s Law’, and yet it is. But more than that, it has developed into one of those priceless pieces of theory that might be the antidote to the phenomenon I have dubbed ‘tickbox‘.

The monetary issue seemed a simple one to solve. Everyone seemed to agree that it was. They would focus on measures of monetary growth, and when the money supply began to grow too much, interest rates would rise and gently ease it back down again. The trouble was that it didn’t work.

As he was going through the figures that came across his desk from most countries every month, Goodhart began to notice something peculiar. It didn’t matter which country it was, or which target they chose – the act of establishing a target seemed to change it. Whatever monetary target was chosen, because of its relationship to incomes or inflation, would lose that relationship pretty quickly. It was certainly not what was supposed to happen.

These were the bones of Goodhart’s Law. It was clear that the very act of making one figure a target and paying attention to it changed the behaviour of bankers. They would put in extra effort, or interpret their work in slightly different ways, to please their superiors and to meet the target. It was this quirk of monetary theory that Goodhart pointed out in Sydney in 1975.

If you use a piece of data as a target or as a box that must be ticked, then the data will become inaccurate. That’s Goodhart’s Law.

Take for example the idea set out in cartoon form by the American cartoonist Zack Weinersmith, which imagines that – through some hideous policy brainwave – all children have to stop studying poetry or the arts and start practising clock-mending, and the number of hours spent mending clocks becomes the target for success among schools. It all seems logical, given that so many top engineers are known to have been keen on taking clocks apart when they were children. But the policy has the reverse effect, as one might expect. ‘Science is dead, engineering is static, humanities are unknown,’ says the penultimate picture. ‘All is clock.’

The final comic picture shows the policy-makers congratulating each other, because ‘according to our clock-based metric, everything is great!’

This little story has not actually come to pass – yet – but it does demonstrate the issue that Goodhart’s Law poses to organisations, especially large or centralised ones. Not only does the target skew everything, so that the original relationship – in this case, the link between great engineers and clock-mending – is no more, but the target then blinds the distant policy-makers to the truth because they have over-simplified the world and perhaps even lost a way to describe what is now missing.

Inspired by the system thinker John Seddon, whose new book Beyond Command and Control was published recently – more on that soon – I have begun to realise just how much of an effect Goodhart’s Law has.

It happens subtley as the definitions are tweaked and the top managers delude themselves. It is also becoming clear that the government’s copious mistakes with covid may have been largely the result of their ignorance of Goodhart’s Law. The latest thoughtful FT piece by Andrew Hill suggests something along these lines.

Perhaps most deressingly, it transpires that ministers fell back on scientists at SAGE who, according to the BBC programme More or Less, were arguing among themselves how fast the virus was doubling the infection rate. So, Goodhart’s law being what it is, they chose the most optimistic conclusions – that the UK were four weeks behind Italy when it now seems clear that we were only one week behind.

That is why we failed in the UK to lockdown sooner. Other nations did the semsible thing – Greece and the Indian state of Kerala , without the benefit of advice from the top epidemiologists in the world – and simply shut their borders, and save thousands of lives as a result.

I never criticised the use of data in itself in my book Tickbox, but it looks worryingly as if the people who surround themselves with data and try to use it to take political decisions are likely to be a great deal more deluded than those who don’t. If so, we should blame the effects of Goodhart’s Law.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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(We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by &lt;a href=&quot;"mailto:[email protected]"&quot;&gt;emailing us&lt;/a&gt; or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).' id='choice_2_4_1' tabindex='75' /> <label for='choice_2_4_1' id='label_2_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. 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<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_5' ><div id='gf_5' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_5' action='/opinion/goodharts-law-and-the-multiple-covid-cock-ups/#gf_5'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_5' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_5_5' class='gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3>Get emails</h3></li><li id='field_5_1' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_5_1'> <span id='input_5_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_5_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='65' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='First Name*'/> <label for='input_5_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_5_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_5_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='67' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" placeholder='Last Name*'/> <label for='input_5_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id='field_5_2' class='gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_2' >Email<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_5_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='69' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id='field_5_4' class='gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible' ><label class='gfield_label' >Confirmation<span class='gfield_required'>*</span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_5_4'><li class='gchoice_5_4_1'> <input name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Consent' id='choice_5_4_1' tabindex='70' /> <label for='choice_5_4_1' id='label_5_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. 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<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_6' ><div id='gf_6' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_6' id='gform_6' action='/opinion/goodharts-law-and-the-multiple-covid-cock-ups/#gf_6'> <div class='gform_body'><ul id='gform_fields_6' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id='field_6_5' class='gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible' ><h3>Before you go!</h3> <p>Stay up to date with what's happening at Radix. 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