The Office for National Statistics is often, and usually unfairly, criticised as being a biased arm of government, massaging figures to suit government paymasters. Only when they publish bad news (as this week’s sluggish growth figures attest) are they considered to be impartial.
There is a real problem with the ONS, but bias isn’t it. Statistics is not an exact science, but it’s a science nonetheless, and witty aphorisms notwithstanding its practitioners are not in the business of lying.
The real problem with the ONS is that its outputs inevitable become justifications for government action. In a world where politicians must be seen to do things, and where every statistic can be turned into a Cause Célèbre, the collation of data and the publication of statistics becomes a motor driving the engine of government.
Fredrich Hayek said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “while in the physical sciences the investigator will be able to measure what, on the basis of a prima facie theory, he thinks important, in the social sciences often that is treated as important which happens to be accessible to measurement.” To put it more succinctly, That which gets measured matters, or as Tom Peters put it, “What gets measured gets done”.
Sir John Cowperthwaite, the Financial Secretary of Hong Kong credited by many as fostering that terrirory’s economic miracle, famously resisted requests to provide statistics to HM Government, lest they be used as ammunition by those who wanted more government intervention. It didn’t seem to do Hong Kong any harm.