There’s a famous story about a nail factory in the old Soviet Union. When it was told to produce millions of nails, it made them so small as to be useless, but when it was told to make tons of nails, it made them so big they were useless*.
I was reminded of this by the Guardian’s report that the government is considering almost halving the number of foreign students coming to the UK.
This is obviously moronic. It would deprive us of billions of pounds of export earnings at a time when we’re borrowing massively from overseas; it would harm one of the UK’s very few world-class high-skilled industries; and it would deprive us of the “soft power” than we’d enjoy from future foreign decision-makers having goodwill towards the country as a result of their student experiences.
Why, then, do something so stupid? It’s because cutting student visas is the easiest way of achieving the target of reducing immigration, just as producing useless nails was the factory’s easiest way of hitting its targets.
What we have in both cases are egregious examples of target fetishism. Targets are often not ultimate goals but rather expressions of those goals – and sometimes bad ones. What the Soviet Union wanted was more good nails. Similarly, when people say they want to reduce immigration they don’t have in mind an urge to cut the numbers of Chinese physics students. In both cases, chasing the target misses the goal.
And here, I lose patience with the Tories.
Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s were told by the Tories that central planning was a stupid idea. And yet here we have a Tory government considering the same mistake that central planners made, of thinking that it was sufficient to hit targets.
But there’s more. What we have here is a failure to see the case for freedom. This is that if you give power to the state it’ll be misused, because the actually-existing state is a stupid bully. Just as “anti-terror” laws have been used to harass journalists and peaceful protestors, so immigration controls will hurt decent people. And for the same reason - because they are the softest targets.
There was a time when Tories were, rightly, distrustful of the state. That time has passed. The Tories are now the enemies of freedom, and of basic economic rationality too.
* I don't know if this story is true or not: if it's not, it merely shows that today's Tories are even stupider than Soviet central planners.