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.

Comments

  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.

  5. Wayne Grand says:

    “…..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.”

    Explains Obama’s and Kerry’s behavior regarding the Iran deal.

  6. G-Man says:

    4. the simplest way to identify the cabal is to find out who you are not allowed to criticize.

  7. G-Man says:

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

    Not necessarily. Bureaucracy is about a certain level of control. Slavery is also about a certain level of control. But most people would distinguish between the levels of control. Would you call a traffic light “slavery”?

    That said, it’s clear where you are coming from. Consider this. Capitalism, communism, libertarianism, socialism, monarchy, democracy — it’s all about 1) who works, and 2) who gets the goods — and they all trend in the same direction, towards centralized control.

  8. TB says:

    Somewhere in here there should be a mention of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

  9. Jacksonian Libertarian says:

    All human organization can be placed on a line between Monopoly and Free Market. Starting at the extreme left you have a Communist Totalitarian Government Monopoly which owns everything, and going to the extreme right you have a Laissez Faire Anarchy, neither is a successful model. The Ideal Model is the one that encourages the greatest growth. This is because “Compounding Growth” is the greatest force in the Universe according to Einstein, or so the urban legend says. This is what I call the “Einstein Strategy”.

    The Government Monopoly like all monopolies suffers from the same disease, the lack of the “Feedback of Competition”. It’s the “Feedback of Competition” which provides both the information and motivation, that forces continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price in free markets. This means that the Government Monopoly can never be the efficient deliverer of benefits and services the Leftists would have everyone believe. To maximize growth and enjoy the benefits of the “Einstein Strategy”. The Government Monopoly needs to be limited to only those tasks that only a central government can provide (Defense, Foreign Relations, Justice) as set down in the Constitution. And all other tasks need to be handled by the free market, where they will be forced to improve in Quality, Service, and Price by the “Feedback of Competition”.

  10. Will says:

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

    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 advisors 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.

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