18
May
11

The volunteer economy is a joke

There are some people who think that the internet will make everything free because people will have so much time on their hand that they will volunteer on causes, and that everyone will do this so that things will get done without almost non-existence collective social effort.

This is, I just recently realized, complete crap. I spend most of my day working with volunteers of one stripe or another, and in the capacity that I work with volunteers in, things go pretty swimmingly, but the situations in which spontaneous outpourings of effort get things done are LIMITED. The reason that firms exist who pay their employees to be some place (an office) at some time and sit around until there is work to do and then to do it with all possible dispatch is because this system of organization has enormous efficiency benefits.

In fact, it’s something of a puzzle for economists why there are firms at all rather than an endless sea of subcontractors. Why does Coca Cola keep ANY employees when it could just subcontract on each individual task it needs to get done. Well for one thing the transaction and search costs of finding people to do one job at a time would be a nightmare.

A similar type of logic applies to the volunteer economy. Volunteers are in it for the “cause” and as such cannot be told that they are of no use at the moment or that they are terrible at helping; this type of honesty makes them not want to help. But this psychological dance is extremely taxing because you have to make up things for people to do and to accept their word product even when constructive criticism could greatly improve it (for fear of alienating them).

Also, volunteers are not available for set periods of time usually (when business can maximally transacted in a short period of time) and their is almost no cost to them (save a sense of being valued, see above) for them to just NOT RESPOND to a given task, which can collapse a carefully constructed assembly of work that depends on the work of others in an interrelated whole.

Last, in a paid environment, it pays to do good work and lots of you, because you might get more money, but in a volunteer situation, doing really good work means being subject to bullshitty ass-kissing sessions where the end goal is to get you to spend EVEN MORE time helping that you are getting nothing for.

Don’t get me wrong, I think volunteering for various causes is a really critical part of maturing, interacting with others, and entering into valuable relationships with people who need help, not to mention reinforcing gratitude at one’s good fortune, but as an organizing principle for an ENTIRE ECONOMY; it is a recipe for extreme losses of welfare.

I would love to see Boeing try to build a jet out of a volunteer army.

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