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


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