Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Last week I wrote:

One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count.  Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency's public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.

Despite being a Jerry Pournelle fan, I had never heard his Iron Law of Bureaucracy, but it certainly fits my observations

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.


  1. Jim Collins:

    Long time ago I was watching the original movie "The Blob" and figured out my law of bureaucracy.

    Unless something stops it a bureaucracy will expand and consume all of the resources that it can access.

    I figured this out when the Federal Government built a new office building in Jacksonville, Florida in the 80's. They built a 10 story building when they only needed 5 stories. Their reasoning was that it would be cheaper to overbuild than to build a new building later. By the time that the new building opened two years later, it was too small.

  2. NL7:

    It's not surprising that the idealistic people focused on fixing the world are outmaneuvered by the cynical people focused on preserving their jobs and status. The idealists are very likely not paying attention, running around trying to provide services or whatever, oblivious to the subtle rule changes and hiring decisions of the cynics. After a while, the outfit is operated under cynical rules which often sacrifice the sharpest edges of the idealistic mission, in an attempt to be less controversial and less of a target for politicians. Then it will be staffed by cynical hires, who are not as interested in working long hours for idealism. A number of the cynics will leave for high-paying jobs in lobbying or private industry, which perpetuates the sense that the outfit is a stepping stone to better things, not a place for idealism.

    Eventually, it's no fun being an idealist in a cynical workplace, and the idealists move on or drop their expectations. It gets difficult to tell the difference between a battered idealist and a cynic with the sheen of idealistic cognitive dissonance (i.e. idealism for the sake of fooling yourself). Taxing authorities are rife with characters displaying their wry, sardonic wit and perversely embracing their outcast status.

    The CFPB is at the beginning of this curve, having just been started by Warren and Obama a few years back. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes to become a stepping stone to lobbying or the financial industry.

  3. STW:

    Don't forget Parkinson's Law - "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". In the context of a bureaucracy, however, expanding work (or making work) will eventually require additional resources. These resources will, in turn, make work for themselves, resulting in a further need for resources. I read once that the natural growth rate in this instances is 2% a year (or doubling every 35 years). That seems unduly optimistic.

    Parkinson's Law of Triviality is also worth checking out.

  4. mesocyclone:

    Pournelle doesn't have the only law of bureaucracy... see:

  5. sean2829:

    Living in the Baltimore-Washington region it was interesting tracking the impact of the sequester here near agency HG's vs. out in th field. I think most departments took a 3-5% cut in their budgets. There were almost no job losses by government bureaucrats, some job losses or cutbacks by contractors but often a quarter to a third loss of benefit or services by the needy.

  6. mlhouse:

    I call mine the "Barney Effect". When public bureaucracy is faced with even minor budget "reductions" (usually meaning that they are not getting as much of an increase as they want) they always put the most popular programs on the cutting block, not the most wasteful. When the Corporation for Pubic Broadcasting was facing minor budget cuts that is what they screamed "Then we will not be able to air Barney or Sesame Street." In the private sector any executive that responded to a needed spending cut that way would be fired.

    But in the public sector this is apparently acceptable. And the reason it is is that it is effective. It changes the political argument to one they can win.

    I like Carly Fiorina as a candidate. I think she could make a jump up in the race by touting her executive experience by proposing a policy that she will seek a 2% cut in all budgets and will demand the head of each agency to propose those cuts with the caveat that if they try the "Barney Effect" she will fire them on the spot.