Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy

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  • "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. He has restated it as: 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."

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In many organizations such as NGO’s, federations, clubs, companies, political movements and many more, over time we see a degrading of the original intentions, their thoughts and their behavior. Original good intentions slowly shift towards power games and corruption. Let’s analyze what happens; a small group of people with good and positive intentions unite and form an organization. They want to make this world a better place. For two reasons; the first one is that they are good people, and want to improve the world in some aspect, their intentions are right and justified. Two, they cannot perform that task alone and realize that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they also identify with the original intentions. The larger the organization, the more power you have, so far so good. The thing that often happens next can be explained by two well-described effect. The Ringelman effect which comes down to the more people contribute to a task, the less their individual contribution will be and the Bystander effect, also called the Kitty Genovese effect which is; the more people see or know that something bad is happening, the less the urge to act, better leave that to others. A ramification of the bystander effect is the fact that the larger the organization is, the less responsibility and accountability people feel towards it behavior as a group. People barely know each other, task are divided in many small parts without having a direct effect on the total outcome. Also, information limited and diffused, so people barely know what is going on in other parts of the organization and so people hardly feel bad or guilty when bad thing happened as result of that group. “I was just following orders”,” I am just a small piece of the machinery”. This explains that looking at organizations that performed evil things, each individual that you talk to seems like a very nice and agreeable human being, never being able to perform the evil deeds or contribute to the bad things the organization performed as a whole. Most organizations or movements do start with idealistic intentions but in many cases, known from world history, it does not only end up badly, but they create the exact opposite of what they originally intended. When the communist party started they wanted to create a world where wealth was divided more evenly, a class-less society and increase equality between people. Their intention was not to kill millions of citizens, commit genocide and just create another new class of privileged rulers. The same applies to the National-Socialists, whose original intentions were different from the well-known final horrible results. Freedom fighters change into suppressors, idealism turns into greed and hunger for power. Do-gooders turn into evil people. At the start people want to be part of “something greater than themselves”, but human nature barely accepts this. In the end most people desire to be greater than something that is greater than themselves. They want to believe in God, in humbleness, but they end up trying to become gods themselves. They start as sheepdogs, uniting and defending the sheep against the big bad wolves, but change into wolves themselves. One mistake is to think that everybody in that organization had the same good intentions. Many are there to make their own, hidden agenda work and see the original mission as an alibi only. Often these people rise to the very top of an organization and exploit it. Now the bystander effect comes into play and nobody speaks out or everybody looks the other way. It is easier and it keeps the symbolism of the original mission intact, afraid of possible repercussions and becoming a whistleblower, revealing the truth, and jeopardize the original mission. But the original mission and intentions are already buried under corruption, nepotism, mismanagement, personal and financial interests and other political intentions. In the end it is all very predictable, or like Dan Ariely wrote: '"predictable irrational". We human species are not as rational, independent thinking and acting and as positive as we think. Just look at today’s new items. We are small and vulnerable for manipulation, we need leadership to “guide” us, we are naïve or easily deceived, manipulated or exploited by others. The best way to counteract this to get educated or educate yourself, to become a critical and independent thinker and if need accept the consequence of this as well, because one and awhile you might rattle the cage and doubt or shatter the illusions of others, which they won’t like. But always keep mind the relative value of your own thinking and values, since you might be wrong as well. The truth lies, like often, in finding a balance.

Further reading

  • Alvesson, M; Spicer, A: A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations; Journal of Management Studies 49:7 November 2012
  • Banaji, M; Greenwald, A.G: Blind Spot – The Hidden Biases of Good People; Delacorte, 2013.
  • Coxall, M: Human Manipulation - A Handbook; Cornelio Books, 2013.
  • Ehrenreich, B: Bait and Switch; Henry Holt, 2005.
  • Garcia, S.M; Tor, A: The N-Effect; Psychol. Sci. 2009 Jul; 20(7), pg.871-877.
  • Gonzales, L: Everyday survival: Why smart people do stupid things; W.W.Norton, 2008.
  • Konnikova, M: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time; Canongate Books, 2016.
  • Rosenthal, A.M: Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case; UC Press, 1964.
  • Schermer, M: The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule; Holt, 2005.
  • Smith, D.L: Less than human - why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others; St. Martins Press, 2011.
  • Spicer, A: Business Bullshit; Routledge, 2018.
  • Sunstein, C.A: Conformity - The power of social influences; NY Univ. Press, 2019.
  • Zimbardo, P: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil; Random House, 2008.