I first read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I was seventeen, and was aware even then that a thorough understanding of Catch-22 was not the best preparation for an unclouded adulthood.
To me, the most notable manifestation of Catch-22 is any organization set up to ameliorate or eliminate a perceived problem. I should make it clear that this principally concerns the public sector, which
nowadays includes certain charities, many of which receive much or most
of their funding from the taxpayer.
At first all seems well. Progress is made and everybody is keen to see the organization succeed. But some of those employed in it soon begin to perceive that amelioration or elimination of the problem is not in their best interests because this will cost them their jobs. The more idealistic members of staff – typically those who, at the outset, were the most enthusiastic – either resign in frustration or are sidelined and dismissed. The people left behind are the ones interviewing replacement candidates and will obviously engage others like themselves. An ethos develops in which jobs in the organization, and the organization itself, become more important to its members than its original aims.
The organization next undergoes another change: it henceforth exists in order to perpetuate and if possible exacerbate the problem. Exacerbation of the problem allows the organization to grow in size and (as far as the perception of society at large is concerned) value. Those at the top, those directing the organization, can thus command higher salaries and juicier perks, and join the ranks of the great and the good.
The evidence is all around us. It is not in the interests of the police to eliminate crime, of the National Health Service to keep the populace healthy, of your local council to be efficient, nor of the bodies dealing with race relations and gender politics to promote harmony. Most damaging of all, it is not in the interests of those in government that welfare dependency and the national debt should do anything but grow.
It is possible that our armies of politicians, quangocrats and civil servants think they are doing the right thing. It is equally possible that they don’t. The more senior they are, the more suspect their motives.
In ancient China, apparently, doctors were paid only if their patients remained healthy. A solution along those lines might be conceived: but, really, no one can do anything about this problem, because that would mean setting up an organization to deal with it, and that, my friends, is the biggest catch of them all.