Iron Law Of Institutions: Retain Power At All Costs

This law shows that leaders tend to bear very high costs in order not to lose influence.

Iron law of institutions

There are people who prefer a thousand times more to govern in a heap of ruins than to admit that their administration is not going well, and the iron law of institutions describes this phenomenon very well. Let’s see it next.

The iron law of institutions

Jonathan Schwartz described in 2007 the iron law of institutions, in which he postulates that people who control a certain organization are more concerned with maintaining their power within the institution itself than with the power of the institution itself. That is, according to this law, people who have won an important position in a certain organization or who preside over it would prefer to keep their position, even if this would ruin the institution, before handing over power to someone more suitable.

This phenomenon is not strange at all. It is very common to see it in all kinds of human institutions, from primary schools, medium and small companies and, at a very high level, large corporations, political parties and sovereign state governments. It is something that has always been in history and, for both good and bad, will continue to be given forever.

Origin of the concept

Schwartz used this term for the first time to refer to Nancy Pelosi’s management within the Democratic party. Pelosi, who is currently the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, struggled in 2007 trying to address the opinion of left-wing voters on the Iraq war issue. The left was being very against the conflict, but the Democratic party, supposedly belonging to the same spectrum, seemed to be in favor.

Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to consult this question with fellow Democrats, who did want the conflict to stop or be better managed, a useful slogan in her run for the presidency of the United States. It seems that Pelosi feared that by giving voice and vote to other Democrats, she would lose her position to a candidate closer to the average American left-wing voter.


Let’s look at some examples of the iron law of institutions.

Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party

A more recent case in American politics in which we can see how cruel the iron law of institutions is, we have it in the case of the Democratic party and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential elections. In these same elections, the Democrats lost the presidency, winning the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump.

Bernie Sanders stood out among Democrats for his truly leftist views, critical of issues like Palestine-Israel, civil rights and wages. This ideology was especially controversial for the Democratic leadership, who, despite supposedly being on the left and liberals, saw Sanders as a threat to their power within the party.

Sanders was gaining considerable popularity, something that led other Democrats, such as Neera Tanden and David Brock, to take the initiative to discredit and belittle Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

The fight to preserve the leadership and hierarchy within the organization, preventing Sanders from climbing it and becoming the main candidate of the party instead of Hillary Clinton, was something crucial for the collapse of the Democratic party in the 2016 elections.

The rest is history. Hillary Clinton did not win the elections as the new president of the United States and Bernie Sanders opted for the US Senate as an independent senator, not limited to the Democratic party.

Stalin’s purges

Another case is that of Iósif Stalin. The Soviet dictator ordered purges within the Red Army, killing many competent officers who would have strengthened the Soviet Union militarily, in addition to ensuring the security of the federation. By assassinating them, Stalin caused a serious problem in the Union, since it was very weakened, being at the mercy of Adolf Hitler when he tried to invade the Soviets.

Difference with the iron law of the oligarchy

There is another law whose name may be confusing with the one set forth in this article. We are talking about the iron law of the oligarchy and, in it, a phenomenon is described that would be more or less related to that of the institutions, although it is not the same.

This law was proposed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in 1911, in his book Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie (On the sociology of parties in modern democracy). It stipulates that within a political party it is inevitable that an oligarchy appears, that is, a group of power that is above the rest and that they manage it in a more or less authoritarian way, regardless of how democratic the institution was in its beginnings .

Michels reached this conclusion when he saw that, in complex institutions, it was very difficult to carry out a direct democracy, that is, for each of its members to give their voice and vote without intermediaries. To streamline the process and make the organization work, sooner or later a few will take over running the entire institution.

With the passage of time, in any organization, be it a political party as is the case that Michels describes in his book, like any other less political type of institution, a ruling class will be formed. This same ruling class will be in charge of controlling the flow of information within the organization, allowing it to retain power and prevent dissenting opinions from arising.

The difference between this law and that of the institutions is that the second describes how the ruling class prefers to retain power, even if this is detrimental to the organization, while that of the oligarchy would describe how this ruling class is formed in within the organization, and what it does to continue to retain power.

Bibliographic references:

  • James L. Hyland. Democratic theory: the philosophical foundations. Manchester, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Manchester University Press ND, 1995. p. 247.
  • Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, 1915, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001), 241,

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *