Iron law of institutions

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The iron law of institutions, usually attributed to political blogger Jonathan Schwartz, states:[1]

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.

He was originally describing Nancy Pelosi's unwillingness to consult with Iraq War protestors in 2007 — and more generally, the Democrats' failure to embrace disaffected leftist voters, as it would affect their power within the party. (This leaves aside the question of whether there would be enough disaffected voters for this to pay off, and whether it would disaffect enough current voters to nullify any gains.)

John Milton said much the same (through his character, Lucifer):

It is better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven.

One problem with the "law" is that it sounds good and makes sense of the world for people ... but it's pretty much not disprovable.


[edit] Other meanings

The phrase has been used previously, with variant meanings.

  • The subversive vision: American romanticism in literature by Michael J. Hoffman (1972) says (p.56): "Although Thoreau has not worked out a new form of government, he is practical enough to know that all systems are ultimately subject to the iron law of institutions and vulnerable to expedience ..." This is close to Schwartz' usage.
  • Memorandum for the President: A Strategic Approach to Domestic Affairs in the 1980s by Ben W. Heineman and Curtis A. Hessler notes (p.48): "Fighting the Last Battle. There is an iron law of institutions: successors have to be perceived as dramatically changing the practices of predecessors."
  • Issues in Education: A Comparative Analysis by E. J. Nicholas (1983) says (p.15) that "deschoolers hold to a deterministic, iron law of institutions, irrespective of time and place. They fail to distinguish between what is and what must be."
  • A Peace of Timbuktu: Democratic Governance, Development and African Peacemaking by Robin Poulton (1998) notes (p.168): "Refugees are very different from sustainable development. These arguments from the 'iron law of institutions' sound to us more like self- serving excuses for not collaborating, than genuine strategic difficulties." This is close to Schwartz' usage.
  • With a Happy Eye But...: America and the World, 1997-2002 by George Will notes (p.32): "However, most secrecy is not necessary, and an iron law of institutions guarantees that the ratio of unnecessary to necessary secrecy increases steadily."

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

  • The West Wing episode "Shutdown" depicts the scenario quite well.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Democrats And The Iron Law Of Institutions (Jonathan Schwartz, A Tiny Revolution, 5 September 2007
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