When volunteerism is a problem

When I lived in San Diego, my house was in the close vicinity of the campus of the large state university that employed me at the time. I was fortunate enough that I could literally walk to work. Purchasing a home in San Diego was already an expensive proposition, especially on an assistant professor salary. House prices in the College Area, however, were relatively low at that time, doubtless due to what was widely regarded as an unappealing feature of that residential area, namely its closeness to the university.
Why was that a problem ?

It was a charming old neighborhood, whose character had been significantly altered by the explosion of the student population. Many old houses were converted by their owners into rental properties — essentially student mini-dorms. Landlords were mostly interested in collecting rent money, not so much in making sure that tenants took good care of their homes (anything with a roof on top would be rented out for top dollars anyway), even less that they would behave as good neighbours and citizens.
Partying is, as we all know, one of the culminating points of a young person’s college education, consumption of alcoholic beverages being inarguably its most crucial ingredient. Unfortunately, that often leads to rowdy behaviour, to the annoyance of neighbours who have to deal with a permanent problem of noise, littered sidewalks, beer cans and bottles tossed just about anywhere, damaged public and private property.

Trying to get those who were directly or indirectly responsible for this situation (unruly tenants, their parents, absent landlords, the university itself) to do their fair share in order to alleviate it, proved a difficult proposition; as a result, law-obeying taxpayers who should legitimately expect not to see daily broken glass or tossed food on the sidewalks, were simply told that they had to put up with all that, merely as a consequence of their choice to live close to a university. Street cleaning that the city of San Diego provided was inadequate to meet the requirements of that neighborhood, where littering and dirt were a problem to a much greater extent than elsewhere.
So, what was left for us to do, at that point ?

I remember attending countless community council meetings, where this issue was discussed extensively, and opinions roughly fell into two camps. There were those who proposed that residents would simply arm themselves with broom, trash bags and good will, and periodically (weekly) engage in a massive street clean-up exercise. “Instead of wasting all this time talking about it, why not just do something about it — let’s get out and remove litter ourselves, we cannot be sitting here forever bitching and moaning, waiting for someone to do something about it !“, is typically what their argument sounded like. And, there is no question that it sounds compelling. Anyone standing up and arguing that that was a bad idea, that he would never adhere to such an initiative, was surely going to be branded as an antisocial jerk — especially someone with no hair and speaking with an Italian accent… but, I digress.

However, quite a few of us felt that the proposal of self-inflicted community work was not only unfair, useless, and plainly not right, but actually likely to make the problem worse. First of all, it was outright silly, an exercise in “feel-good” and vacuity. It was akin to trying to use a teaspoon to clean up the rubble from the demolition of a five-story building. After dozens of residents spent their Sunday afternoon collecting trash, the neighbourhood looked clean for a few hours at best, and went back to pigsty by Tuesday morning (I am talking not being able to wear my Tevas, because of the broken glass on the sidewalk).
Secondly, the fundamental flaw that I saw with that course of action was that it basically allowed those who were responsible for that unfortunate state of affairs, to get away with it. If residents had gone out, collected the trash and systematically dumped in the front yards of those two, three mini-dorms that were easily identifiable as the main source of littering, it would have been different — I might have gone along with that (just kidding… maybe).
It is not the job of a citizen that of sweeping trash off the street. if someone has to go out and clean up, it’s either a crew of paid city employees, or, if it must be done for free, the litterers themselves should do it. To convey to them the message that somehow, someone out there more conscientious than them will clean after them, that they are not really responsible for their actions and never will be held accountable for them, is tantamount to encouraging them to push it even further, to litter even more. So I suggested that we spend instead the time writing letters to landlords, maybe to newspapers, perhaps consider lawsuits — anything but simply put up with a situation that just was not right.
The only possible outcome of picking up a broom and doing the cleaning ourselves, would have been that of giving those who should have done something about it, a reason to say that things were not so bad after all, and therefore no action was really required.

Please, don’t get me wrong, volunteerism, pro bono community work, are wonderful things. There exists, however, a tipping point where, if they come to be regarded as the de facto, accepted way in which essential services are delivered (or, to compensate for deficiencies or inadequacies of said services), volunteerism can actually do more harm than good.
It’s volunteerism that underlies the pernicious, conservative philosophy of the thousand points of light, whereby government should stay out of the business of furnishing many services, even essential ones, for these will be provided by governement-independent, self-assembled groups of well-off, concerned citizens who exist all over the place, ready to put spontaneously time and money to the goal of helping the less fortunate. This is a dangerously naive (if not callously disingenuous) argument. While it is surely true that sometimes local activism can outperform government agencies, to the point of being regarded as an effective replacement for government intervention, most of the time this simply does not happen, as groups of private individuals, for all their good will and intent, seldom are able to run the same type of operations that a government can run, by the sheer difference in resources. And the fact that there are no local organizations which can effectively take care of those services, hardly seems a reason to leave a lot of fellow denizens out in the cold.

If a group of willing residents enjoy beautifying streets and park, well, that is great. But taxpayers all over the city have the same right to have their streets cleaned and safe — which means that the way to deal with litterers, especially with repeated offenders, is legal prosecution and fines. Once fines are collected, then extra cleaning crews can be hired and streets be cleaned by professionals.
It is exactly the same reason most reasonable people deem putting more policemen in the street as the proper, best way to deal with crime, as opposed to encouraging citizens to get their own firearms.
This remains true in other spheres. Sending individually our money to third world countries, for example helping raise a child through organizations such as Plan Canada is a wonderful thing, but it is no replacement for large-scale, government-run third world aid.

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