Pournelle’s Iron Law and fantasy fiction

When I was writing The Unbound Man, one of the core ideas I found myself wanting to explore was the behaviour of formalised groups — how they pursued their goals, how their goals changed over time, and how they interacted with other groups and with individuals both within and without. This, I thought, was something that frequently came up in stories of all kinds, yet it rarely seemed to be given the kind of central attention that I wanted to give it, particularly in the context of fantasy fiction.

I wasn’t quite sure how to verbalise all the things I wanted to say, and I took that to be a good sign. Clearly there was enough here to sustain me through a 150,000-word novel, and perhaps more. At any rate, if I wanted to arrange my thoughts into some vaguely coherent form, there was no other way to do it than to sit down and actually write the book.

So I did. I wrote The Unbound Man, revised it — and then, shortly before it was published, I discovered that Jerry Pournelle had thought about many of the same things already. And he’d done more than just think about it — he’d managed to distil his thoughts into Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

It’s hard to disagree with that. Go to your favourite news site, pick the most prominent story involving some sort of systemic societal problem, and there’s an excellent chance that the Iron Law has something to do with it. (If, like me, you’ve spent more time playing Civilization 4 than is strictly healthy, you can probably hear Leonard Nimoy observing right now that ‘the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy’.)

But it seems to me that this phenomenon goes well beyond modern bureaucracy. Bureaucracy itself, of course, is far from a modern invention — no doubt the Iron Law was just as applicable at the time of the Roman Empire and to the medieval church as it is to any organization today. But doesn’t the same dynamic exist in broader geopolitical entities like nation-states, to the extent that unthinking, uncritical support for the state is frequently termed ‘patriotism’ and considered a virtue? Doesn’t the same tension exist in smaller groups — football clubs, research teams, and each little sub-department that makes up a bureaucratic whole? Even families are not immune from something akin to this — just consider the Lannisters of Westeros.

For me, Pournelle’s Iron Law is too specific. If I was to rephrase it, I’d probably put it something like this:

In any group or association there may be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the group, and those who work for the group itself. The older, larger, and more complex the group, the greater the likelihood that the second type of person will gain control and establish the rules under which the group functions.

Or, to put it another way, this is the danger of tribalism: the division of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the unreflective assumption that the highest good is whatever seems to benefit ‘us’.

And when I put it like that, I realise that in fact this is something that fantasy has been exploring for decades, ever since Boromir sought the Ring for the good of Minas Tirith. Far from blazing any sort of trail, I’m really just following in the footsteps of so many other writers who have gone before me.

Huh. Perhaps I should have stuck with Pournelle’s original formulation after all.

Yet merely recognising this phenomenon is just the beginning. One then has to decide — as an individual, or as a character — what one is going to do about it. And that’s something I had a lot of fun exploring in The Unbound Man, though I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Fortunately, I’ve got two books in the Undying Legion trilogy still to go.

And in the meantime, I think I need to go and read some Jerry Pournelle.