The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, China’s leader wanted to re-instill revolutionary fervor in his people and make his country a peer with modern industrial nations.
As it happens, steel production was a good measure of the health of a modern, mid-century economy. And so, Mao set some goals. He wanted China to become a world leader in steel production. Zealous functionaries launched into action and soon almost every town and village in China had a crude local steel furnace. So eager were the people (or at least their party file leaders) to meet their goals, they melted down cooking ware and farm implements to produce more and more steel.
By sheer force of political will, China was soon producing tons and tons of … pig iron. Worthless lumps of metal. The furnaces weren’t hot enough and the inputs were too crude to produce anything meaningful.
It would be bad enough if that were the end of the story. However it doesn’t end there. The monumental misdirection of human capital led to suffering and starvation in the ensuing months that is truly staggering to think about. The most conservative estimates suggest that 23 million people died in the coming famines. Others place the death toll at double that figure.
The measure became the target with disastrous consequences.
The Great Leap Forward is a particularly dramatic (and tragic) example of the Campbell-Goodhart dilemma, and I hope the analogy to religious life is not too strained. For better or worse, we Mormons find ourselves in a religion that is (at least in recent memory) somewhat obsessed with measures and targets. How do we avoid the “corruption pressures” we are warned against in Campbell’s Law?
A little autobiography
Indulge me as I recount a relevant mission experience. Campbell’s Law seems magnified in the context of full-time missionary work. I was “that guy” on the mission. Eager to please, I followed every mission rule with irritating exactness. As the weeks and months passed, I saw my star rising. I was assigned to serve as a senior companion, then district leader, then assistant zone leader, and soon enough zone leader. On paper, I was a very good missionary. I did all the things that missionaries were supposed to do.
In retrospect, I’m not so sure. I certainly could have been kinder to companions who were not as tied to every mission rule. My rigid adherence to the white handbook didn’t suddenly transform me into a great teacher. With great regret, I can recall more than one instance where I placed more emphasis on following the rules than simple kindnesses to those in need.
This life is a test…
We often talk about life as a time of preparation. If this is true, it seems like we spend a lot of our time preparing for the wrong sorts of things. Another formulation of Goodhart’s/Campbell’s law is the phenomenon of “teaching to the test.” The basic worry is that teachers spend so much time preparing their students for exams that they become good test-takers but don’t really get an education.
When we place so much emphasis on behaviors (which are essentially measures of something we are more interested in), we run the risk of “making the measure the target.” It is a difficult thing to internalize the imperative to become something new. Too much focus on doing (or not doing) a set of specific behaviors isn’t enough to get us there.