Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.


Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.


Update 3/15/2019.

Actually people within organizations usually have three motives—their own self-interest, the survival and flourishing of the organization and the mission of the organization.  Ideally these motives should not be in conflict.

When I worked for newspapers, I expected to get paid and hoped to get pay increases for doing good work.  I wanted the newspaper itself to survive and flourish.  But I did not think about these things on a day-to-day basis.  I thought about doing my job and judged myself according to journalistic standards.

According to what I call the neoliberal ideology (which I think about more now than when I made this post), people within organizations are motivated only by financial gain, and the way to manage an organization is through a system of rewards (for those on top) and penalties (for those on the bottom) for achieving metrics that measure the success of the organization.

The neoliberal ideology says that success in the marketplace, either for the individual or the organization, automatically results in what is best for society.  The for-profit corporation becomes the model for society.

Thus we have universities that prioritize enrollment and tuition payments over scholarship and learning, and health organizations in which physicians are limited to how much time they can spend on a particular patient.

American labor unions under the Taft-Hartley law are forbidden to negotiate for anything except wages and benefits for their members—that is, by law they are required to ignore the public good.   This is not something that is inherent in the labor movement.

The school teachers who are striking illegally all across the U.S. are bargaining for what’s good for their pupils as well as for themselves.

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2 Responses to “Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy”

  1. theabstractdetail Says:

    Often overlooked point, in terms of the interplay between a paper’s advertising department and newsroom. I guess the issue in most reader’s minds stems from how much of each they get when they open the paper or visit a website.


    • philebersole Says:

      When I worked on newspapers, the news staff had no direct contact with the advertising staff, except we’d meet them on the elevators or in the cafeteria. But of course the publisher, who was in charge of news and advertising, could not ignore advertising and circulation in setting policy and priorities.


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