Goodhart’s Law: Any measure that becomes the object of policy ceases to be a good measure.
Goodhart’s is a universal law. It essentially says that if you measure outcomes and focus on those outcomes as the point of the exercise, then they’ll cease to be good numbers. Instead, one should measure outcomes and then focus on changes to the system that do not include the outcome. If one focuses on changing the outcome, it will no longer be a useful outcome to measure. Examples of this can be found at all levels
For instance, a couple of decades ago American Medicine and the Joint Commission began to focus on pain as an outcome. Practices were established to measure pain and then decrease pain. The point of most of the efforts was not to find and negate the source of the pain, but rather to decrease pain itself. Now, two and a half decades later, we have an opioid overdose epidemic and measured levels of pain in our society that are higher than 25 years ago. This, in spite of good evidence that opioids don’t work for pain for more than about 3 months. We are so focused on the outcome that we cannot see the system that brings it about.
Let’s take another such outcome, drug use. Many have noticed that there are rising levels of drug use in our society. The War on Drugs has been a major response to that. It was not a War on the Causes of Drug Use in America; it was a War on Drugs, a war on the outcome. Our government has been measuring the outcome since that time, and it’s only getting worse.
So what is the alternative suggested by Goodhart’s law, and why do so few people choose it? The alternative is to measure the outcome and then consciously not attempt to change it. Rather, one looks at the system that produces it and attempts to form hypotheses about how the system brings about the outcome. Then one would change the system and remeasure the outcome to gauge the effectiveness of the change. Unfortunately, this method usually includes things one would rather not look at.
So, instead we focus on the outcome. Too many people wanting to smoke pot? We’ll make it illegal and then less people will want to smoke it. That didn’t work? Oh well, we’ll increase the penalties and then less people will want to smoke it. That didn’t work? Oh well, poison the crops so that anyone smoking it will go blind. That didn’t work? Oh well, we’ll increase border protection to keep it from coming in. I think you get my drift. Never do we ask, “Why do people want to smoke marijuana?”
Prohibition doesn’t work because it is counter to universal laws. It is an attempt to determine an outcome by focussing on that outcome. It never works.
So what could we do about people wanting to use drugs? One thing we could do is to notice that in the lab, normal animals don’t use drugs. They have to be trained to use drugs or bred to use drugs. There are some people in our population that, while not consciously bred, have an abnormal baseline so that drugs fix something in them that others don’t notice. This is genetic, and these people will have the same drive to continue to use as a normal person would to use something that keeps them from going blind. But what about people who are not born this way? If they are not born to use drugs we can teach them to use drugs. In the lab this is done by either assigning the drug to an already important state such as eating or, at least in primates, by making them mimic the genetic predisposition through the application of isolation or subjugation. This works in humans too. Take a genetically normal human who doesn’t like drugs and make him isolated or feel less than and he’ll have a good reason to start using drugs.
If we want drug use to go down or to even stop we have to treat addiction in those people who have it, whether born with it or developed it later. We have to stop people from having a need for drugs by focusing on how our systems and society cause the brain changes that mimic the genetic condition. Finally, for the minority of people in neither of these conditions, we need to increase education of the effects of drugs on the normal brain so that they don’t bring about the condition through damage via substance use. What will happen if we continue to focus on the drug use? We’ll actually not only make ineffective policy decisions, we’ll continue to make the problem worse.