The Folly of Central Planning

USSR FlagThe purpose of the Central Societies’ Committee (CSC) in Trinity College is to secure funding from the Capitation Committee, and then distribute this to societies. Each year, members allocate tens of thousands of euro in funding to student societies around campus.

In a perfect world, all students would have an equal say in how college funding is allocated to societies. After all, this is your money and it is being allocated for your benefit. But a CSC composed of some 15,000 members is completely unworkable and would never reach consensus. Thus, we need a central authority to decide how to spend our money. Or do we?

Let’s ask ourselves. How does the CSC decide where to send this money? While ostensibly representative of the student body, CSC is composed of Students’ Union (SU) and society hacks who allocate funding according to their whim. Some societies, especially those favoured by certain CSC Officers, receive extremely generous grants. Others less favoured, received more meager grants. This is to be expected in a system which is neither transparent nor accountable.

Consider the following suggestion. Instead of centrally planning the distribution of funding for student societies, give each student the same amount of ‘CSC dollars’ (hereafter referred to as CSCs) in advance of Freshers’ Week.

Students then choose what societies they want to give their CSCs to. These CSCs are then redeemable for cash from college. If your society receives 1000 CSCs from its members, they can exchange this for €1000. If you can’t convince students to give you any CSCs, then you don’t get any funding from college.

What are the benefits of such a system? First off, it’s democratic. No more privileged elites in House 6 deciding where to allocate college funding. Instead, every student has an equal say. You control the same portion of funding as everyone else, because everyone gets the same number of CSC dollars at the start of the year.

It will also force student societies to provide a better service before taking your hard-earned cash, and foster competition. Societies have to convince you that you will get more out of giving them your CSCs, then if you gave it to any other society. Individual students have the power.

Critically, students also decide what constitutes a ‘better service’. In the past, this was just the opinion of some SU hack in Front Square. But who is best placed to decide what students want? Of course, the students themselves are. With CSC dollars, this becomes a reality. If societies aren’t offering what students want, they won’t get any money. If that means they can’t spend it on the things that students (by definition) aren’t interested in financing, that’s a very good thing.

But people are very gullible. Won’t they be tricked by false promises during Freshers’ Week? Won’t societies lie to you to get your CSCs? Firstly, that’s an existing problem under the status quo with membership fees, so it’s not caused by CSC dollars. Secondly, people are smart, and usually ask questions about the society’s track record before parting with their money. There’s no reason to think that the current CSC Executive is any smarter than the average student with CSC dollars.

Especially since, after the introduction of CSC dollars, more than three quarters of money given to societies during Freshers’ Week will be directly controlled by older students who have heard all the lies before. They will not be fooled by false promises, and they know what societies will really provide a good-value service in exchange for CSCs. Thus, the CSC dollar is smart money.

There’s also the problem with the current system created by membership charges. Right now, if you don’t pay extra money to become a member of (say) the Hist, you don’t get any benefit from the thousands of euro they receive from the university. But this money comes from you in the form of registration fees!

With the introduction of CSC dollars, everyone benefits from funding to college societies. How? If you don’t want to get involved with existing college societies and don’t want to pay for other people to have fun, simply offer to sell your CSCs to one of the bigger societies at a discount. You give them 10 CSCs, and they’ll pay you €9. Everybody benefits!

The Soviet Union tried to tell its citizens what they wanted, and failed. Communism and central planning are rightly regarded today as an abomination. Yet for some reason, we tolerate it right now in Trinity College through the Central Societies Committee (CSC).

Why should society oligarchs in House 6 decide how to allocate YOUR money? Why should you not be allowed to decide how to spend your money yourself? Abolish the Central Societies Committee (CSC). Let individual students allocate funding for societies, freely and democratically. Let the free market reign, and reap the rewards.

Republished as “CSC and the folly of central planning” in the University Times (November 3rd, 2009).

© The Free Marketeer 2009

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7 Responses to The Folly of Central Planning

  1. snappieT says:

    The CSC Exec is made up of people who are elected by the treasurers of existing societies, not randomly selected or co-opted by “SU hacks”. If you want to be on exec, get onto a society, become a treasurer and make yourself known amongst societies. You do not have to be an SU hack to achieve this.

  2. thefreemarketeers says:

    In truth, describing them as “SU hacks” was incendiary and not entirely accurate. Although there is an over-lap between individuals who are heavily involved in the SU and those heavily involved in student societies, not everyone in CSC can be described as such. My mistake.

    However, the mere fact that you must be ingratiated with the current crop of students running student societies in order to determine how much funding should be allocated to whom is evidence enough that the current system is weighted in favour of larger, more influential societies. Although impossible to realise if you’re involved in societies and the SU, to many outside that elite group the system seems untransparent, hostile and closed.

  3. snappieT says:

    I must disagree on this point also. You claim that the current system is “weighted in favour of larger, more influential societies”, but the fact is that each society gets only one vote when it comes to electing the CSC exec. The trick to getting in is convincing (or in more cases, knowing) more society treasurers as your competitors. You get to this point not by being an “SU hack”, but by becoming active in many societies. With such a system, it is the people who enjoy societies most (and hence are members of many, and will have the approval of many treasurers, and therefore get elected) who run the CSC, which is the ideal situation.

    (I do agree however, that many such people who are social enough to be active in that many societies are also likely to be active in the SU, meaning that it becomes somewhat of a shortcut to gain entry to the CSC exec, simply because you are exposing yourself to as many treasurers as possible in a single setting)

    (I would also like to point out that I am far from an SU hack, but ran for election to CSC exec last year, missing out by only one vote to get in – joining one more society would have done the trick for me, no SU hackery involved)

  4. thefreemarketeers says:

    Perhaps you are correct, and that the presence of SU students is merely incidental. But the point remains: Why should funding for societies be decided by those who are involved with societies? Why is the ideal situation that people who enjoy societies most should run the CSC?

    I very principally disagree with this. Even if you disagree with my solution, at the very least something more democratic could very easily be created (say, an election of CSC committee by all students – although even this is corrupted by larger, more established societies with larger active memberships.. classic example of lobbying).

    Although foolish, Michael Moore’s latest film provides numerous examples of former Wall Street heads who were given prominent positions in government deciding how to regulate Wall Street and then how to bail out financial firms.

    Since registration fees are dictated by the needs of those applying to the Capitations Committee, we have the following situation: The heads of societies lobby college for more money to fund the societies that they themselves are running, decide how to allocate that money, and then spend it. What about the vast, vast majority of students who are not on CSC Committee? What about their opinions?

    For the most part, voting in elections seems in my experience to operate corruptly. Societies trade votes and form interest groups, then use their combined power to lobby for funding at the expense of others. I see no merit in the current system. Even if you insist that the college should take money from students forcibly and pour it into societies, the current decision mechanism is deeply flawed and extremely corrupt.

  5. thefreemarketeers says:

    There is a thread at boards.ie which is discussing the merits of the plan, and CSC’s integrity in general:

    http://boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?p=62687936&posted=1#post62687936

  6. snappieT says:

    I think we can both agree that asking the entire student population to elect the CSC would be unreasonable. Would you consider a situation where every society has a vote for each member they have? This will lead to more than 15k votes, of course, since students will join (many) more than one society, but at least it’s correlated with where the students are.

    (I maintain my point that the best people to run the CSC are those who are in love with societies)

  7. thefreemarketeers says:

    Why can’t the elections run in tandem with those of the Students’ Union? Also, voting according to membership is pretty unfair (and suffers from the same problems we have under the status quo).

    Consider a student who enjoys debating, plays some rugby and writes for Trinity News. That person is supported by some of the most prosperous institutions on campus, and gets more funding from college for their activities than the average student. What about a student whose only passion is Ultimate Frisbee? They get considerably less funding per individual for their activity than the amount which is allocated per individual.

    So: The status quo favours those who are active in many organisations, and your suggested system does same.

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