The Iron Law of Institutions
is a principle of political science
: the people who hold power in institutions
are guided principally by preserving power within
the institution, rather than the success of the institution itself. As originally stated, there is some ambiguity between whether the people who control the institution are prepared to ignore the success of the institution, or its power. However, for in most cases it may be safely assumed that the two things being ignored amount to the same thing.
As originally stated
The expression was coined by Jonathan Schwarz
at his blog, A Tiny Revolution
. He phrases it thus:
- The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution.
- This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. If history shows anything, it's that this cannot be changed. What can be done, sometimes, is to force the people running institutions to align their own interests with those of the institution itself and its members.
The context in which Schwarz is speaking is his contention that the Democratic Party leadership is willfully indifferent to the huge potential numbers of disaffected voters who would most likely vote for it in droves if it embraced (in this case) the standing antiwar movement. Put another way, Schwarz, et al., assume that adopting policies much closer to their own is so obviously a huge vote-getter, that no compelling explanation exists for the Democratic Party failing to do so, than the Iron Law of Institutions: the existing leadership fears losing power within the Democratic Party if it embraced the incoming hordes of enthusiastic new antiwar voters.
Other examples cited by Schwarz include the late President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose decision to invade Iran, then Kuwait, resulted in catastrophes that he ought to have been capable of anticipating; a cabal by the Democratic Party leadership in 1972 to undermine the chances of George McGovern's election; and Stalin's purging of the Red Army prior to 1941. In each of these cases, as understood by the writer, the leader obviously placed his own power within the organization above the survival or success of the organization itself.
Origins of the phrase
The term is a play
on Ferdinand Lassalle's expression, "Iron law of wages
. Numerous "iron laws" exist, such as " Pournelle's iron law of bureaucracy
", the "Iron law of oligarchy
", and so on.