Iron law of institutions

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It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.
—Lucifer, in Paradise Lost

The Iron Law of Institutions, created by political blogger Jon Schwarz, 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.

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

In using "iron law" for this, writers might have been thinking of the iron law of oligarchyWikipedia (Michels, 1911), which is roughly the same in operation. This "law" is a consequence of how people think and work, normally. It is probably not possible to completely "break" the law, but there may be institutional structures that harness it, by limiting the central power of the organization. An oligarchy will still form if the organization is large. Look around!

Other meanings[edit]

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 Schwarz's usage.)
  • 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 also close to Schwarz's usage.)
  • Memorandum for the President: A Strategic Approach to Domestic Affairs in the 1980s by Ben W. Heineman and Curtis A. Hessler (1980) 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): "[D]eschoolers hold to a deterministic, iron law of institutions, irrespective of time and place. They fail to distinguish between what is and what must be."
  • With a Happy Eye But...: America and the World, 1997-2002 by George Will (2002) 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."[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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


  1. "Democrats And The Iron Law Of Institutions", A Tiny Revolution, 5 September 2007
  2. Will then went on to cheerlead for unnecessary secrecy throughout the rest of his pundit career.