The Iron Laws

TGGP has directed me to The Iron Law of Institutions, which asserts that people in charge of an organization will choose to reduce its power or influence rather than reducing the influence and control of their position within it.

Although this principle seems to accurately describe the leaders of very large and powerful organizations, my personal experiences with leaders indicates it doesn’t necessarily hold. In small, everyday groups, the leaders tend not to respond in this way. What’s responsible for the difference, and why isn’t the Iron Law inviolable?

Perhaps the answer lies with Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which states that

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 representative 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.

This law seems explicable through simple mechanisms: people who care about the goals of an organization more than their own power devote more of their resources to those goals, and when forced to choose between them, will favor the goals over power. People who favor power will only devote the minimum resources needed to increase their power. The higher up the leadership hierarchy goes, and the more powerful the organization becomes, the more likely that those in control will favor power rather than the ostensible goals of the group.

Are there other plausible explanations? If so, how might we distinguish between them?


9 Responses to “The Iron Laws”

  1. To get meta, why do you think these thinkers have this aesthetic of high expression of certainty and determinancy?

    Why not “here’s this model, and here’s how it’s faring empirically”?

  2. Well, they did call their model an “Iron Law”, which has certain associations in English.

  3. Yes, but WHY did they call it an Iron Law? I’d say it’s more impressive to think up some Iron Law than some general tendency. Overconfidence is more popular than uncertainty, as shown here:

  4. Andy Wood Says:

    This is uncannily timely, since I was pondering a similar state of affairs related to software development, just today. I more commonly encounter people working to preserve their local status, especially with regard to plausible deniability, than people working to ensure the success of a product. I see this as irrational, and attributable to short-sightedness, because being any part of a successful project confers greater long-term status than being a “blameless” part of a failed project.

  5. So these and similar assertions are called ‘iron laws’ just to sound impressive, and the epiphet isn’t meant to suggest that they’re unviolable?

    Strange – my experience is that people seem to want to imply that the law can’t be bent or broken when they talk about such things. Is it all hot air and advertising?

  6. Riffing off AndyWoods’ comment:

    This may be a trivial point, but I think there’s a connection between plausible deniability and commission/ommission bias. There seems to be a strong human bias to punish commissions more harshly than ommissions, and ommissions are often not punished at all. Plausible deniability allows one to claim one was engaging in ommission (or a strong form of ommission, unknowing ommission) rather than commission.

    Incidentally, in Yudkowsky’s recent ethics/morality discussions at OvercomingBias, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the irrationality of the commission/ommission bias (for example, he tends to single out murder as something to be considered wrong by human standards, that an FAI should adopt).

  7. I think the precautionary principle is just rather easy to implement, so punishing people for commissions rather than omissions is more likely to successfully alter their behavior.

  8. TGGP, I find your backwards justification from the present approaches to be noxious. I’ve now encountered them in a few different discussions (a couple right here on Melendwyr/Caledonian’s blog). I’m specifically discussing optimizing, you’re replying by arguing that the status quo is the more functional option of a (possibly false) dilemma.

    I have the same opinion on your post in the common law discussion on this blog.

  9. Perhaps too much reading of those ultra-Darwinian adaptationists.

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