Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

John Derbyshire adds this:

Of the Second Law, Conquest gave the Church of England and Amnesty International as examples. Of the Third, he noted that a bureaucracy sometimes actually is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies — e.g. the postwar British secret service.

John Moore thinks the third law is almost right; it should read “assume that it is controlled by a cabal of the enemies of the stated purpose of that bureaucracy.”

Francis W. Porretto notes that Cyril Northcote Parkinson studied the same phenomenon of bureaucratic behavior:

Parkinson promulgated a number of laws of bureaucracy that serve to explain a huge percentage of its characteristics. They’ve exhibited remarkable predictive power within their domain. The first of these is the best known:

Parkinson’s First Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson inferred this effect from two central principles governing the behavior of bureaucrats:

  1. Officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals.
  2. Officials make work for one another.

Like most generalizations, these are not always true…but the incentives that apply specifically to tax-funded government bureaucracies make them true much more often than not. They make a striking contrast with the almost exactly opposite behavior observable in private enterprise.
That young bureaucrat will profit from deliberate ineffectiveness to the extent that he can get himself viewed as an asset by his superiors and a non-threat by his peers. His superiors want him to produce justifications for the enlargement of their domains. His peers simply ask that he not tread on their provinces.

Miltion Friedman noted that bureaucratic resource allocation involves spending other people’s money on other people, so there are no compelling reasons to control either cost or quality — but a bureaucrat will learn, given time, how to “spend on others” in such a fashion that the primary benefit flows to himself.

To do this, bureaucrats must manage perceptions, so that their work seems both necessary and successful:

Von Clausewitz and others have termed war “a continuation of politics by other means,” but when viewed from the perspective of the State Department official, war is the declaration that his organization has failed of its purpose. He sees it as bad public relations for his entire function. Thus, even when the nation’s interests would be overwhelmingly better served by war than by the continuation of diplomacy, the State Department man will prefer diplomacy. It’s in his demesne, and enhances his prestige by enhancing the prestige of his trade.

It’s not too much to say that averting war regardless of its desirability or justifiability is near the top of every State Department functionary’s list of priorities. In this pursuit, the State Department will often find itself opposing even peacetime operations of the military designed to improve its effectiveness, such as the acquisition of new weapons or the enlargement of its ranks.


  1. Henry Levy says:

    “Bureaucratic Organization” is an empty term, or merely misunderstanding the essence behind each word composing this term. Bureaucracy is simply a tool, almost always in the hands of an Organization. A tool serves the goals of its organization and has no self-aspirations, neither motivations nor goals. As such, it is meant to remain static in nature, a “one trick pony” similar to one unit in a long automatic manufacturing machine. Analyzing bureaucracy with organizational critical methods is nothing different than Disney Animation; it seems real, so kids adopt it as reality. Philosophers should’ve not fallen to this.

  2. Raven says:

    “Bureaucracy is simply a tool, almost always in the hands of an Organization.”

    Both capitalized words are abstractions, not concrete objects. Bureaucrats, however, are real people, such as clerks and middle managers, on whom the aforesaid “bureaucratic organizations” depend for their functioning and existence — and while bureaucracy may be a tool in the hands of the organization, or the government it serves, bureaucracy is most certainly a tool in the hands of bureaucrats… who know it inside and out, chapter and verse, article and subarticle, paragraph and subparagraph, item (c) stroke 3 footnote 12 (b). And that unfiled bit in the pigeonhole over your left shoulder, sir. Which would set the cat among the birds….

  3. Bill K. says:

    Might one say that bureaucracy is the continuation of slavery by other means?

  4. BJK says:

    Conquest probably adapted those from communism (his scholarly field). Leftists said that any socialist or labor organization would eventually be taken over by hardened communists, and it’s reasonable to assume that any communist is not a communist when it comes to his own possessions.

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