Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Bureaucratic Incentives and the Iron Law

     The late Jerry Pournelle propounded an 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.

     This is entirely consistent with the behavior of bureaucracies predicted by Public Choice theory. It has been confirmed by the behavior of bureaucrats and bureaucracies throughout the civilized world.

     According to Sean Davis at the Federalist, Pournelle’s Iron Law is currently operating in two of America’s most visible (and often glamorized) federal bureaus: the CIA and the FBI:

     Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Gina Haspel is personally blocking the declassification and release of key Russiagate documents in the hopes that President Donald Trump will lose his re-election bid, multiple senior U.S. officials told The Federalist. The officials said Haspel, who served under former CIA Director John Brennan as the spy agency’s station chief in London in 2016 and 2017, is concerned that the declassification and release of documents detailing what the CIA was doing during the 2016 election and the 2017 transition could embarrass the CIA and potentially even implicate Haspel herself.

     “Haspel and [FBI Director Christopher] Wray both want Trump to lose, because it’s the only chance they have of keeping their jobs,” one senior intelligence official told The Federalist. “They’re banking on Biden winning and keeping them where they are.”

     As usual with unnamed sources, it’s best not to be absolutely confident about the claims in the article. However, what Davis reports is consistent with the Deep State ethos, which puts the protection of “its own” above all other priorities: a special case of Pournelle’s Iron Law.

     While this particular case has immediate bearing upon the future of these United States, for someone interested in the dynamics that rule politics and governments, the question of how to prevent Iron-Law-conformant behavior in bureaucracies is more imperative still. Is it even possible? And at what cost?

     The cost factor must not be dismissed. One easy, even “obvious” way to prevent bureaucratic conduct from converging on Iron Law “norms” is to limit the term of employment in a bureaucracy to a period too short for such dynamics to take effect: perhaps only a year, after which the employee would be mandatorily discharged and forbidden to work in any other bureaucracy for five or ten years. But the cost would be the loss of whatever expertise and special occupational knowledge the discharged worker would take with him. Such expertise and knowledge would have been garnered at the bureaucracy’s expense, a cost that could not be recouped. Would we be willing to pay that cost to have bureaucracies that hew closely to their stated missions rather than promoting the internal, “provincial” interests of the bureaucracies?

     It would be argued that certain bureaucracies are too critical to the protection of the nation’s interests to impose any such rule. No doubt the intelligence agencies would be among the first to claim an exemption from all such constraints. But the possibility that the defense of America’s interests will not be served adequately without such rules should be argued for as well. Bureaucrats focused upon protecting their jobs and feathering their own nests are unlikely to spare a lot of time or effort for other priorities.

     And of course, there will always be persons who ask whether we need the functions allocated to such bureaucracies badly enough to endure their costs to the public.

     Two quick observations with which to close: Gina Haspel was made director of the CIA in 2018; Christopher Wray was made director of the FBI in 2017. Those dates suggest that it doesn’t take long for a bureaucrat to succumb to the Iron Law. Of course, both these persons had worked in government for many years: another factor to be considered in analyzing how to thwart the Iron Law.

     Clearly, if solving this problem were easy, it would have been solved long ago. Perhaps we shouldn’t leave it to the bureaucrats to solve it for us.


milton f said...

And of course, there will always be persons who ask whether there is AUTHORITY granted by the founding document for the EXISTENCE of said bureaucracy.

Do not trust in men, trust in the ultimate authority.

Paul Bonneau said...

Here's another version of the Iron Law:

I have often stated a corollary of the Iron Law: "given enough time, all human institutions turn to shit."

Instead of worrying about individuals, just trash the institution every 10 or 20 years. If it really needs replacement (as might happen on occasion), build another from scratch, using no personnel from the previous iteration.

Yes, that is not ideal, but we have a very low bar to exceed. This method does not need to be perfect or even very good; it just has to be better than what we have now. What we have now are a whole slew of institutions all massively counterproductive to their own supposed mission. Just think how much damage government schooling causes, for example.