VSM, CSM, and the fallacy of ideological consistency

In the first half of 2010, I had the honour to work for the awesomeness that was Salient under Editor Sarah Robson. One of the things that made it awesome was Sarah’s commitment to even-handed journalism – especially regarding the (then and now) contentious issue of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM).*

Thus, when I was asked to write an article on the subject, I eagerly pounced on the opportunity. The resulting article, which I am quite proud of, came with all the information needed to familiarise students with the arguments on both sides of the debate. I uploaded as much additional information as I could, including interviews with key individuals and reports on the effects of voluntary student unionism in Australia. My article was subsequently re-used by Critic and cited in the NZEI’s submission to the Education and Science Select Committee.

At the end of all that work, I felt sufficiently knowledgeable about the issue of student membership to make an informed decision as to where I stood. Thus, I came to what will undoubtedly be a surprising conclusion for many:

I am a supporter of Voluntary Student Membership.

Yes, that’s right – I, a History postgraduate of a socially-left, economically-moderate persuasion, am a supporter of VSM. Phew! Why do I feel like i’ve just admitted my alcoholism in front of an A.A. meeting?

However, being a historian, I must by necessity deconstruct what that decision means. Are there any underlying themes that can be exposed and more broadly contextualised? Read on, as I discuss the nature of something I have termed ‘ideological consistency’ – and why, as a concept, it is fundamentally flawed.

  

PRINCIPLE VERSUS PRAGMATISM

When conducting the research for my article in Salient, I noticed two words that popped up everywhere – ‘principle’ and ‘pragmatism’. The former is almost unilaterally the catch-cry of VSM advocates, whilst the latter serves as a bastion for CSM defenders.

Peter McCaffrey – then President of ACT on Campus – summed up the VSM position when I interviewed him in 2010. “The primary reason [for VSM]”, he argued, “is the principled one where we believe that people should have freedom of association.”  The same point has been repeated ad-nauseum in parliament, on campus, and across the web – if car drivers don’t have to join the AA, and employees don’t have to join trade unions, why should students be forced to join students’ associations? Other arguments voiced in favour of VSM include increased efficiency, better representation, and giving a voice back to individual students – but the guiding principle at their core is freedom of association.

CSM advocates typically respond by stressing the quality of the services that students’ associations provide; however, underlying their rhetoric is a tacit admission that freedom of association is being breached, even if only slightly. “[S]ociety seems to infringe upon rights all the time when it’s justified,” stated Alex Nelder, AUSA Education Vice-President in 2010. “I would say that with the vital service that we provide—the advocacy services we have on campus, the welfare we provide, the way in which we foster the student community and the student culture … [represent] a totally justified limit on the very slim breach on the right to freedom of association that’s occurring.” Inherent in this statement is the understanding that, in certain cases, pragmatism should trump principle.

Having reached the casus belli of their cause, most VSM supporters will stop reading at this point. “Freedom of association is a guaranteed right!” They will cry. The sharper amongst them will point to the New Zealand Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee freedom of association. A right, it is argued, does not exist because the majority say it exists – it is guaranteed irrespective of the will of the majority. In that respect, freedom of association stands alongside freedom of speech, religion, action, and movement as inherently sovereign and inalienable.

But what is a ‘right’? Is it an objective truth, bestowed by a benevolent Creator or ingrained in our genes? Or is it a social construct that emerged from a specific historical context to assume a central role in society, culture, and politics? Being a historian and an atheist, I am definitely inclined to believe the latter. A right isn’t something that simply exists outside of the human context – it is an idea, borne out of Enlightenment theory and propelled to international prominence through its close ties to liberal democracy and capitalism. In short, it is a principle – a principle with massive cultural traction, but a principle nonetheless.

  

BUT I AM PRINCIPLED – IT’S ONLY THAT OTHER GUY WHO ISN’T…

Our worldviews are guided by principles – an internal set of rules and regulations that we use to decide what is, and is not, acceptable.

In societal terms, these principles typically manifest as morals – guidelines for acceptable social behaviour. These can range from the mundane (don’t chew with your mouth open, cover your mouth when you cough – or my personal pet peeve, don’t block the supermarket aisle with your trolley!) to the major (don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t watch American Idol).

Once again, it is important to note that morals aren’t objective. Oh, sure, there are some that hold near universal cultural traction (such as murder and theft). These are typically sanctioned as laws – official regulations on human behaviour. But when these morals are placed under close scrutiny, the subjective nature of what is and is not acceptable becomes apparent. The Trolley Problem (clearly elucidated in Michael Sandel’s course on Justice and Ethics) demonstrates just how complex a subject such as murder can be.

When it comes to politics, principles are usually codified into ideologies. Robert Nisbet defines an ideology as:

“[A]ny reasonably coherent body of moral, economic, social and cultural ideas that has a solid and well known reference to politics and political power; more specifically a power base to make possible a victory of a body of ideas.”

This definition is flexible; it can include broad categories of political and philosophical thought such as liberalism, socialism and fascism, or specific variants within these categories such as libertarianism, social democracy or Marxism.

As with morals, ideological principles cannot be separated from their subjective human context. Conflicting principles – such as the support for free markets and private ownership versus mixed economies and public ownership – clearly demonstrate this. However, some principles do hold greater trans-ideological traction than others; freedom of association, along with its sibling rights, fall into this category. Like their moral counterparts, these are given official sanction as laws.

It’s important to note that this isn’t an argument for complete moral and ideological relativism. The relative merit of different principles can be weighed and measured against each other. For example, opposition to murder holds greater cultural traction than, say, opposition to fidgety children on an airplane. There are many questions that need to be asked when performing this measuring process. Is a particular activity or behaviour harmful to others, or just one’s self? If it is harmful to others, is the impact direct or indirect? And perhaps most importantly, what would be the consequences of legislating against a particular activity or behaviour?

  

OK… SO WHEN ARE PRINCIPLES BROKEN?

The short answer is, all the time.

The ACT Party, for example, are staunch liberals (in the classical sense). Their principles are free markets, minimalist government, and individual liberty. Thus, their support for VSM is consistent with their ideological principles. However, many of their policies are clear violations of these principles. They advocate for individual rights and responsibilities – yet they support mandatory schooling and healthcare (albeit through a voucher system). They extol the virtues of work and private initiative – yet they do not support abolishing the welfare state (although they do support reducing elements of it). They seek to reinstate youth rates and abolish minimum wage – yet they do not support the removal of other public constraints on private enterprise (such as the forty-hour week, paid annual leave, and penalty rates for weekend work). And don’t get me started on their record when it comes to social liberalism.

Labour, in contrast, broadly identify as centre-left. They support social progressivism and a mixed economy – free markets within the framework of robust regulation and public ownership of key industries. However, the very concept of ‘key industries’ is problematic. It may refer to industries that provide a social good, such as healthcare and education, or it may refer to industries that provide an ongoing revenue to the state’s coffers. But if being a ‘social good’ is a prerequisite for state ownership, why not nationalise the production and distribution of food? Alternatively, if profitability is important, why not nationalise Fletcher Building? Where is the line drawn?

Let me be clear – i’m not having a go at these parties or their policies. My point, quite simply, is this – when it comes to politics, principle gives way to pragmatism all the time. It does so for many reasons – individual differences of opinion within parties, for example, or a desire not to alienate the electorate. Sometimes principles may be better served through pragmatic compromise (for example, affirmative action policies, which achieve equality in the long term but violate it in the short term). Sometimes pragmatism itself may be considered a principle. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any individual or party within New Zealand that is completely governed by principle – except perhaps for these guys.

  

SO WE’RE ALL DIRTY HYPOCRITES… NOW WHAT?

Don’t worry! Ideological compromise – pragmatism over principle – is pretty normal. We all do it in some form.

However, that’s not to say that all principles are invalid, and should be broken on a whim.The way I see it, whether or not a principle should be broken comes down to the same three questions I posed above – is a particular activity or behaviour harmful to others, or just one’s self? If it is harmful to others, is the impact direct or indirect? And, still as importantly as ever, what would be the consequences of legislating against a particular activity or behaviour?

Based on those three questions, it’s pretty clear that some principles are nigh-on inviolable. Murder, for example – you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find an example of where that is justified (although the state does it all the time through its monopoly on violence). Freedom of speech and action are also fairly universal – although they don’t extend to hate speech or the right to punch annoying people in the face.

So what about freedom of association?

  

BACK TO THE STUDENT MEMBERSHIP DEBATE

Generally speaking, freedom of association holds widespread cultural traction as well – after all, nobody should be allowed to force you to join an association against your will. This logic extends to students’ associations, especially considering the difficulty in actioning the “conscientious objection” opt-out clause. The fact that an “opt-in” model is standard for other forms of association throughout New Zealand, such as trade unions and the AA, lends credence to this argument.

However, let us consider the third question in my equation: what would be the consequences of legislating against compulsory student membership (leaving aside the semantic issue of whether or not VSM represents an anti- form of legislation or merely removes existing anti-legislation)? CSM advocates have been very vocal regarding this point. David Do, President of NZUSA in 2010, claimed that VSM would “devastate important student services [like] welfare, advocacy, support for clubs and societies.” Alex Nelder agreed that “the really important services that we run as a students’ association would basically be gutted.” Yet similar arguments could be made for other forms of voluntary association – and were, in fact, when compulsory trade unionism was repealed in the 1990s.

Consequences specific to the implementation of VSM need to be highlighted for the case of pragmatic compromise to be valid. Such consequences do, in fact, exist, and have been stressed by some CSM supporters. The effect of VSM in Australia serves as a case study here. A paper released in 2008 by the Australian Labor Minister for Youth concluded that “the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact at smaller and regional universities and campuses.”

The Australian legislation, however, differed from that of New Zealand in one crucial aspect – it did not allow for tertiary institutions to collect fees for the services which students’ associations had formerly provided. Thus, in New Zealand, future voluntary students’ associations will most likely resemble the AUSA example – associations which provide services via contract to the university. Ultimately, this would mean that students are forced to pay for these services via compulsory levies to their institution, irrespective of whether they join the students’ association or not.

When it comes to the provision of services such as clubs, food banks, and O-week celebrations, this is probably not much of an issue. However, the core function of students’ associations is, and has always been, to provide independent advocacy and representation for the student body. With their revenue stream dependant upon the institutions’ good will, that independence is severely curtailed. This is not an issue that other forms of association are faced with under a voluntary model – trade unions, for example, are not dependant upon the state, or private enterprise, for their revenue stream.

Thus, the case for pragmatic compromise upon the principle of freedom of association is, in the case of student membership, tenable. Reform of the opt-out process – making it actionable without question – satisfies any doubts regarding compulsion. This is, in fact, exactly what Labour have been suggesting.

Thus, whilst I am a supporter of VSM, I see no issue with a compromise solution – indeed, I would probably choose it over VSM, if push came to shove. However, more honesty is needed on behalf of CSM campaigners. Simply stating that VSM will “gut services” isn’t enough. You must acknowledge that, under the previous system where the opt-out clause was notoriously difficult to action (and did not result in a refund), freedom of association was being unfairly infringed upon. And whilst independent advocacy and welfare might not seem “sexy” advertisements for your cause, they remain the crux of any argument for pragmatic compromise.

  

FINAL COMMENTS

After all my discussion of principle versus pragmatism and objectivity versus subjectivity, I must stress that I, too, am not immune from it. My own bias – a socially-left, economically moderate worldview which is generally favourable to the philosophy of individualism – must be taken into account. For example, I haven’t considered the question of collectivism in my approach, and whether or not it serves as a viable counterpoint to individualism.

  

  

  

*For those not in the know, the past two years have witnessed a heated battle over how student unions (or associations) should be funded. Previously, membership was universal – students automatically become members of their institutions’ association upon enrolling in tertiary education (with an opt-out clause actionable under financial hardship or conscientious objection). However, the recently enacted ‘Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill’ changed all that. From 2012, membership in students association will be voluntary. For more background information, see my 2010 article.

  

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2 thoughts on “VSM, CSM, and the fallacy of ideological consistency

  1. steven

    Matt

    I admire your commitment to clear-sighted commentary and weighing larger political values alongside your own; it’s especially desirable in a debate which was too often characterised by cant, half-truths and misleading statements (university politics as training wheels for real thing I guess).

    This bit really hit home by the way.

    ‘Yes, that’s right – I, a History postgraduate of a socially-left, economically-moderate persuasion, am a supporter of VSM. Phew! Why do I feel like i’ve just admitted my alcoholism in front of an A.A. meeting?’

    Nicely put.

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