How Dare You Volunteer!

How Dare You Volunteer! By Theodore Dalrymple.

Amateurism is often confused with amateurishness, partly because people are now impatient of fine linguistic discriminations. But there is a reason other than the sheer oversimplification of our vocabulary of the kind that has resulted in the loss of the distinction between the words uninterested and disinterested

The reason is this: that the more that activities, particularly managerial, are professionalized, the more amateurs — that is to say, people who do things for their own sake, for the sheer enjoyment of them, or for the public good — are decried and, even more, feared. People whose career depends on doing nothing useful for high pay have much to fear from those who do something useful for nothing.

This, surely, explains why, in Britain, bureaucratic obstacles have been placed in the way of retired doctors and nurses who are willing, able, and eager to help immunize tens of millions of people against Covid, now that vaccines have become available. …

So you might think that the willingness of tens of thousands of retired doctors and nurses to volunteer for a return to duty for no pay would be universally welcome — but you would be mistaken.

Far from welcoming them, the bureaucracy is placing so many obstacles in their path that many of them have reportedly given up on their own good intentions. In order to help with the rather simple task of immunizing people, which is well within their capacity, they have been presented with a form of intimidating length to fill in, requiring of them absurd quantities of irrelevant documentation, some of it difficult for them to furnish. It is as if immunization were as complex a practical procedure as advanced brain surgery.

Is this obstructionism a manifestation of stupidity or malice (of course, the two are not strictly incompatible, malice often lending a certain cunning to stupidity)? I have every respect for the stupidity of British — as of other — bureaucrats, but I think stupidity alone does not quite cover the case. The fact is that, at some level of consciousness, the bureaucracy realizes that a vast national campaign using volunteers is an existential threat to their careers. If much can be achieved for nothing, why is so little so often achieved for so much? Who knows where things might end if voluntarism were allowed to achieve something? …

The fact is that even if an intelligent person in authority were to try to do something to put an end to the idiocy, he would soon be defeated by the unintelligent, for in any large bureaucracy it is unintelligence, at least in the absence of an end other than the very institutional survival that protects careers and guarantees pensions, that emerges triumphant. Stupidity multiplies unnecessary procedure, intelligence decreases it; therefore stupidity is the more functional from the bureaucratic point of view. One way of defeating intelligence and benevolent intention was long ago discovered and summarized by the Spanish colonial administrator who received his orders from Madrid: Obedezco, pero no cumplo. I obey, but I do not fulfill.