Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Beware of Volunteers

Sometime in the past I wrote about Amartya Sen’s notion of counter-preferential choice. According to Sen commitment – like to an ideal – “drives a wedge between personal choice and personal welfare.” Without getting into a discussion about psychic income and all that, the question is whether a person can want one thing but choose another based on an ideal. For example, if you were given the chance to select the first piece from a freshly sliced cake you might not take the largest piece because it would not seem fair.

This led to thinking about the overuse of the concept of volunteering. I do not know about you but when the term volunteer comes up I think of blood mobiles, feeding the homeless, giving up a seat to an elderly person. In other words, to some extent, “volunteering” means making a counter-preferential choice.

Whenever someone claims he or she "volunteered," I get worried. Self-styled volunteers are often people want the best of both worlds. They want what they want and they want you to think the are sacrificing. For example, your dean (this has not happened as far as I know) might arrange for a faculty exchange with a highly desirable school and announce “I volunteered to go first.” When you think about it, it’s not much different from the bully in 6th grade who ate your lunchtime sandwich announcing later that he “volunteered” to eat it. This type of volunteering is a use of power and with a reverse twist that produces a Teflon coating. In fact, "volunteering," if used enough, can become an effective way to gain control over resources. The "volunteer" strategy fits nicely with another law professor strategy that I have identified before -- show no passion because that would reveal a weakness.

Some things I have noted about the new volunteers: They are generally from the make nice, do nothing crowd. They are threatened by law and economics but tend to live their lives like the neoclassical rational maximizer. They make it necessary to come up with a new word for those who used to be called volunteers.


Blogger Marie T. Reilly said...

Jeff. Good point about the rhetoric of "volunteerism." But the distortion you observe is nothing new. I learned in law practice that the key to controlling a transaction to obtain the optimal outcome for your client is to "volunteer" to do the first draft of the documents and supervise all revisions. If you insist on the "right" to control the documents, you are perceived as an overreaching, unreasonable, sinister control freak. If, however, you "volunteer" to handle the "paperwork"-- you are perceived quite differently. I found that my (usually male) counterparts had no problem letting me take care of the details until they saw that I had cleaned them out. Nice memory -- thanks.

10/10/2007 10:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

That's great. If fits our situation to a tee. The one controlling the papers and the numbers always seems to come out ahead while claiming to "volunteer."

One that I recall that is somewhat related is being on the appointments committee. We could not send everyone of the 8 committee members to D.C., only 6. So the Chair asked who wanted to go. Now, let's face it, whether they admit it or not, most law profs, especially early in their careers want to go to the meat market. They get to be big shots, clown around, etc. So, he asked, who wants to go -- not a single taker. The next week we met and he disclosed that every committee member had contacted him privately and volunteered to go.

10/10/2007 1:32 PM  

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