Iron Law of Bureaucracy?

Here is Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control, and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely…. In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

I appreciate that he used a real world example. That means his hypothesis is potentially falsifiable. We just have to find an example to weaken his claim. And we do have such examples. The Finnish school systems are among the best in the world. Finnish teachers are trained at the best universities. Once they take up a teaching position, they are given great authority and control of their classrooms. They are highly respected and well compensated. And last but not least, they are members of a powerful teachers union.

Interestingly, Doug Schoen (conservative Democrat and Fox News contributor) pointed out that the Finnish education system reminded him of the US education system from earlier last century. It was a time when Americans had one of the best public education systems in the world. And it was a time when union membership was high and union leadership was powerful. How has a half century of attacking unions improved anything? For damn sure, bureaucracy has grown even larger as organized labor has shrunk.

It’s also important to clarify the point that the least bureaucratic (and more democratic) forms of labor organizing were the most viciously attacked and most thoroughly eliminated. Only more bureaucratic forms of labor organizing were able to survive the onslaught of the powerfully entrenched bureaucracy of corporatism with its alliance of government, corporations, lobbyists, think tanks, and big biz media.

That doesn’t necessarily disprove this law of bureaucracy. But it does prove that some of the evidence he uses doesn’t support his argument. And that makes one doubt that, as presented, it is an Iron Law. No organization, not even a union, is inevitably bureaucratic. Nor is there always (maybe not even usually) a distinction between those dedicated to the goals of the organization and those dedicated to the organization itself. It depends on what kind of organization, such as whether it is authoritarian and hierarchical or democratic and egalitarian.

This law leaves out many details. It’s a generalization that, however applicable in some cases, has many exceptions. More problematic is its fatalism, in that the bureaucrats can be nothing but bad and they will always win. Still, its a useful generalization for those of us living within the United States, the largest and most powerful bureaucratic system in world history.

* * *

Refuting the “iron law of bureaucracy”
by CronoDAS

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy
by Phil Ebersole

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Iron Law of Bureaucracy?

  1. You hold the argument for a Law of Bureaucracy with something like its antipode, bringing up a question I haven’t seen raised by many– “More problematic is its fatalism, in that the bureaucrats can be nothing but bad ” . Hearing constantly that one’s only ability is to serve the cogs and gears and not the avowed purpose you signed up for can’t lead to anything constructive, but with vast amounts of resources and lives at stake, the bigger picture is easily blurred.

    One idea from the Von Mises fellows I find interesting is that government and business , and their bureaucracies, are different in the fundamentals and thus government can’t be approached like a business. The author of the article I read, Peter G. Klein, has conclusions that are probably familiar if you’ve experience with internet libertarian ideas, but his reasoning is solid and he writes with clarity, so at least I know why I disagree with him in places.

    Is there an Iron Law of egalitarian organization, that it always provides the most justice and best serves its members under all conditions? I’m saying this as someone who strongly favors the more democratic legacy of New England town-halls and the like ( whatever gripes I have about that region’s culture ). I’m just not convinced that every structure with strong hierarchy is an oppressive evil that must be leveled, and it seems to me that some hierarchies exist because that structure wouldn’t exist in any other way, barring some notion of human perfectibility paired with total consensus decision making, which I can’t accept.

    Nor am I completely opposed to unions, but like most political flash-points, I say “Sometimes, a good idea, under some conditions and in some places?”, like mass immigration, in some places and times it’s been a tremendous boon, other times ( I’m thinking late Western Roman Empire ) not so much. I’ve been looking at the Hollywood studio era for insights on my questions– yes it was a grind and often a nightmare for many, but the point was to produce movies and it did that quite well for a long period, and the often un-willed symbiosis in the tension between big studios and laborer’s unions is leading to a question I can’t formulate yet, but it’s interesting to me as something that can be looked back on with some documentation and many perspectives weighing in.

    Of course movies aren’t car engines or clothing, and I’m just a madman who’s jabbering in cyberspace. Maybe I have an over-fondness for hierarchy because I spend what I’ve earned on self indulgent artistic inclinations and don’t support the fine gals in the self-employed dominatrix trade.

    • I’m sorry it took a while to approve this. WordPress occasionally throws random comments into the trash. I try to remember to check the trash regularly, but I had forgotten about it for a few weeks.

      “Hearing constantly that one’s only ability is to serve the cogs and gears and not the avowed purpose you signed up for can’t lead to anything constructive, but with vast amounts of resources and lives at stake, the bigger picture is easily blurred.”

      It’s easy to hate on government. Maybe my perspective comes from working as a low level employee of local government. I see how management operates and what they do. But I also interact with them on a personal level.

      First and foremost, bureaucrats are humans. And a bureaucrat can only be as good as the bureaucracy he or she is part of, which also applies to private bureaucracies such as mega-corporations. Any social system can potentially bring out the worst or best in people.

      “Is there an Iron Law of egalitarian organization, that it always provides the most justice and best serves its members under all conditions?”

      That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked it. But I’m not sure I have a good answer. I’ll ponder it.

      “I’m saying this as someone who strongly favors the more democratic legacy of New England town-halls and the like ( whatever gripes I have about that region’s culture ).”

      I too am fond of town hall democracy. It’s rule-oriented like a bureaucracy. Yet it is small and decentralized. Also, it is more direct and participatory. I’m not sure how such a thing applies to the larger world or what lessons are to be learned from it. I just know it is appealing.

      “I’m just not convinced that every structure with strong hierarchy is an oppressive evil that must be leveled, and it seems to me that some hierarchies exist because that structure wouldn’t exist in any other way, barring some notion of human perfectibility paired with total consensus decision making, which I can’t accept.

      That is more or less how I feel about it. Despite my partial lean toward libertarianism, I’m not anti-government. And I don’t see size as necessarily being the main issue. I’m not against big gov on principle. As for hierarchy, it can exist in small local gov just as easily as large distant gov. In the past, some of the most violently authoritarian and oppressively hierarchical forms of power were of the small local variety, from feudal lords to plantation aristocrats.

      “Nor am I completely opposed to unions, but like most political flash-points, I say “Sometimes, a good idea, under some conditions and in some places?”, like mass immigration, in some places and times it’s been a tremendous boon, other times ( I’m thinking late Western Roman Empire ) not so much.”

      About most things, I’m neither completely for or against. I’m not an ideologue. If anything, I’m ideologically disloyal and promiscuous. Anything potentially can be used for good or bad. Alter even a single factor and the results can drastically change. And many things that seem good or bad in the short term end up being judged differently in the long term.

      “I’ve been looking at the Hollywood studio era for insights on my questions– yes it was a grind and often a nightmare for many, but the point was to produce movies and it did that quite well for a long period, and the often un-willed symbiosis in the tension between big studios and laborer’s unions is leading to a question I can’t formulate yet, but it’s interesting to me as something that can be looked back on with some documentation and many perspectives weighing in.”

      I’m not as familiar with that issue. Unions are an imperfect response to an imperfect system. It would be most optimal to simply have a democratic economic system, instead of trying to put democratic limits and controls onto a non-democratic and too often anti-democratic economic system. Unions can only operate well to the degree there is functioning democracy in all areas and levels of society. But if democracy is functioning well, unions maybe aren’t necessary at all.

      So, maybe unions can as much be seen as a symptom of failed democracy or something like that. Maybe it’s like a bandage on a wound, a bandage that needs to be removed when the wound has healed. The symbiosis between bandage and wound is hopefully healing. It does no good to blame the bandage or wound, as both are the results of something else.

      I do find that modern capitalism, for all its merits, has been extremely destabilizing and in many ways harmful to the social fabric. The US has gotten away with this for so long because our system depends on the cannibalizing of the social capital immigrants bring with them. Obviously, that isn’t sustainable in the long term, considering that the spread of American-style capitalism is undermining the social fabric in other countries as well.

      “Of course movies aren’t car engines or clothing, and I’m just a madman who’s jabbering in cyberspace.”

      Jabber away.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s