June 4, 2017


The Iron Law of Institutions is this: “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.” . . .

In recent years, a dogged, no-exceptions, don’t-ask-any-questions attitude towards campus activists has taken over the radical left, to the extent where college student organizers are expected to go entirely uncriticized in left spaces. That hurts our movement, but because criticizing college students risks losing status within the left movement, lefties are afraid to do so. That’s the Iron Law of Institutions for you.

Or take random outbursts of street violence against the right. This has been a matter of absolute obsession within the radical left for this entire year. The amount of attention spent on, say, the minor dust up at Berkeley would seem totally bizarre in comparison to the actual material impact on the world of such violence. As Marxists we are, of course, materialists, and thus are meant to privilege the objective facts about material conditions above emotional and cultural commitments. As an objective matter the salience of right-wing political street violence to our constituencies is very low. Compare the number of victims of neo-Nazis, in this country of 315 million, to the victims of poverty and homelessness. Our priorities should be obvious. Meanwhile, our ability to actually create positive change through violent force is incredibly limited even under the most optimistic reading of the facts.

Yet for months, we’ve fixated on the potential for left-wing victory through antifa tactics and street violence. Why? Because of the Iron Law. Loudly braying on social media about how we’re going to punch and kick our way to socialism has if anything net-negative effects on our movement. Indeed, dismissing the left as thugs who are unable to win through the actual process of democracy is a constant right-wing canard, one they have used to great effect for decades. But for people already within the left’s social spaces, arguing for political violence is associated with a kind of cool or cachet. It marks you as a radical, as someone who’s in favor of “really doing something.” It brings with it a sense of left-wing machismo. And so the incentives for the left are misaligned: to advance the movement, we should treat political violence as the distraction that it is, but to advance inside the movement, people have to showily associate themselves with the tough guys calling for armed revolution.

Social media exacerbates that problem, of course. And I’ll note that this is exactly where the Left was in the early 1970s, just before it suffered a 35-year eclipse.

And yes, De Boer has basically just rediscovered Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Or perhaps the iceberg-tip of public-choice economics. What’s funny is, if you expand this insight beyond politics, you understand why lefty big government is doomed to fail.

InstaPundit is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.