There are people who would rather govern in a pile of ruins than acknowledge that their administration is not going well, and the iron law of institutions describes this phenomenon very well. Let’s see it below.

The Iron Law of Institutions

Jonathan Schwartz described in 2007 the iron law of institutions, in which it is postulated that the people who control a certain organization are more concerned with preserving their power within the institution itself than with the power of the institution itself . That is, according to this law, the 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 leads to the ruin of the institution, before ceding the power to someone more suitable.

This phenomenon is not at all strange. It is very common to see it in all kinds of human institutions, from primary schools, to medium and small businesses, and at a very high level, large corporations, political parties and governments of sovereign states. It is something that has always been in history and, for better or worse, will continue to be so forever.

Origin of the concept

Schwartz first used this term to refer to Nancy Pelosi’s administration within the Democratic Party. Pelosi, who is currently the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, had problems in 2007 in trying to address the opinion of left-wing voters on the issue of the Iraq war . The left was showing great opposition to the conflict, but the Democratic party, supposedly belonging to the same spectrum, seemed to be in favour.

Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to consult this issue with fellow Democrats, who did want the conflict stopped or better managed, a useful slogan in her race for the presidency of the United States. Pelosi seemed to fear that by giving voice and vote to other Democrats, she would lose her position to a candidate closer to the average American leftwing 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 is the case lived by the Democratic Party and Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential elections. In this same election the Democrats lost the presidency, with the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump winning.

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

Sanders was gaining quite a bit of popularity, something that made other Democrats, such as Neera Tanden and David Brock, take the initiative to discredit and belittle both Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

The struggle to retain the leadership and hierarchy within the organization , preventing Sanders from being able to climb up and become the main candidate of the party instead of Hillary Clinton, was crucial for the collapse of the Democratic Party in the 2016 elections.

The rest is history. Hillary Clinton did not win the election as the new president of the United States, and Bernie Sanders ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent, non-Democratic senator.

Stalin’s Purges

Another case is that of Joseph 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 killing 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 confused with the one set out 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 thing.

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). He stipulates that within a political party it is inevitable that an oligarchy will appear , that is, a group of power that is above the others and that will manage it in a more or less authoritarian way, regardless of how democratic the institution was at the beginning.

Michels came to this conclusion when he saw that, in complex institutions, it was very difficult to carry out a direct democracy , that is, that each of its members give their voice and vote without intermediaries. In order to speed up the process and make the organization work, sooner or later a few people will be in charge of managing the whole institution.

With the passage of time, in any organization, whether it is a political party as Michels describes in his book, or any other type of less political 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 the emergence of dissenting opinions.

The difference between this law and that of the institutions is that the latter describes how the ruling class prefers to retain power, even if this is detrimental to the organization, whereas the oligarchy would be the one to describe how this ruling class is formed 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,