Labor of Love:

The Volunteer Economy

Inspiring the Best in People

I read in today's Wall Street Journal that the paper's editorial credo is free markets and free people. Elsewhere on the front page, I was struck by the following news item: "For-profit dialysis centers have an 8% higher risk of kidney-failure deaths than non-profit ones, according to an AMA Journal study. The authors blamed financial pressures." Curious that they cast blame rather than giving credit: for I beleive that credit is due to the volunteer-driven, labour-of-love inspired non-profit organizations.

In modern times, this is hardly the only example of a non-profit or volunteer-based organization doing better than it's for-profit analog. Surely there are abundant examples in the medical and social-services arena. I am more attuned with examples from the high-tech world. Just a few days earlier, there were news stories about how the Comdex computer trade-show was faltering, and the for-profit Key3 Media might be filing for bankruptcy. As an attendee of that show, and also the brighter and splashier SIGGGRAPH, I could only sneer. The SIGGRAPH trade show, focusing on the computer graphics field, is run entirely by volunteers. It is only a little bit smaller than COMDEX, but it is far, far more dynamic, showy, alive and packed with more intellectually stimulating, "mind-blowing", even, gems than Comdex ever was or dreamt of being. One might want to ascribe SIGGRAPH's better showing to the fact that in addition to the trade show, it has a technical papers and panels track, a juried art exhibit, an interactive media show, and many other components that Comdex lacks. But that would belie the root cause: SIGGRAPH has this richness because the people that run it love what they do.

Since the times of Adam Smith, if not before, the beleif of all free-marketeers has been that money motivates people to do a better job, to provide better goods and services. For economists of all stripes, money provides a simple and convenient analytic measure of the value of things. You can assign a dollar value to just about everything, and you can graph dollar value as a function of time, take its derivative, put it in a formula, and the like. Thus, the study of free markets and the study of money are complimentary: they easily go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, it also elevates the importance of greed as a social value far beyond where it naturally occurs in todays social fabric. While most people would like to be paid better, or to be richer, relatively few knock themselves out to this end. When people say that they would like a better job, they sometimes mean "more money", but almost invariably, they are thinking about the working conditions: the co-workers, the boss, the chances for a career, for opportunities, if not concerns about noise dust and health. In these modern times, we are lucky enough that many, many people have earned enough income to no longer be concerned with financial security; rather, personal fulfillment, through career or otherwise, is increasingly on the minds of many.

This force, I posit, will play an increasingly important role in the future economy. Properly recognized and harnessed, it will bring about a sea-change in the economies of the industrialized world. While history books are filled with the stories of individuals motivated by feelings other than that of greed, the recognition of these motivations has played a minor, almost un-noticed role in modern economic discussions. Try it: name a historical figure motivated primarily by greed: Midas? the 19th century railroad robber-barons? When we honour individuals, it is almost never for thier ability to accumulate wealth. Yet, when we explore the failures of kidney-dialysis clinics, we blame "financial pressures" rather than crediting the resourcefulness of individuals. This is a conversation gone deeply wrong, when it is hard to see important workings of an economy, because we focus excessively on financial performance.

Where to now? Possibly the largest, most readily identifiable, measureable and quantifiable coherent volunteer effort today flies under the banner of Linux, or more generally, Free Software, or Open Source. Tens of thousands, verging on hundreds of thousands, of software engineers have banded together to create something of value, and asking for no financial return. What motivates these people? The reasons are many, and Eric Raymond, among many others, make an effort, sometimes controversial, to explain the motivations. This is not to discredit social workers, who probably outnumber software engineers, and do thier jobs primarily for love, not money. Nor is it to disrespect artists and musicians, who are in it for the love of art, not of money. Then we have the teaching professions, and thier love for the young. The academics, and their craving for academic stature. Its just that the economic output of the developers of free software is more directly measurable, more directly identifiable, than that of social workers or artists. Free Software, as a new phenomenon, is more readily grasped than old or even ancient social institutions: the conversation is less likely to get mired down in the ruts of traditional discussions.

The social engineering question is then: what can we learn from this effort to better assist individuals in finding thier true vocation, and what principles can we enonuciate (principles analogous to the free-market principles), that will unleash the power of a calling (and not just the power of greed)? How can we give currency to the need for fulfilment? How can we harness and more precisely unleash this poorly-recognized, poorly-exploited economic resource? The force is clearly there; it is now up to society and to political parties, to pundits and to government to channel this force in a positive and meaningful way.

Linas Vepstas <> November 2002