Refuting the “iron law of bureaucracy”?

Jerry Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy” implies that leaders of bureaucratic organizations will seek to maximize the power and influence of the organization at the expense of its stated goals—but is that true in the real world?

Julie Dolan of Macalester College examined surveys of government administrators and found that, surprisingly enough, high-ranking federal bureaucrats tended to prefer less government spending than the general public, even on issues that their own departments are responsible for.

Here is the abstract from her paper, “The budget-minimizing bureaucrat? Empirical evidence from the senior executive service” that was published in the journal Public Administration Review:

In a representative democracy, we assume the populace exerts some control over the actions and outputs of government officials, ensuring they comport with public preferences. However, the growth of the fourth branch of government has created a paradox: Unelected bureaucrats now have the power to affect government decisions (Meier 1993; Rourke 1984; Aberbach, Putnam, and Rockman 1981). In this article, I rely on two competing theories of bureaucratic behavior-representative-bureaucracy theory and Niskanen’s budget-maximization theory-to assess how well the top ranks of the federal government represent the demands of the citizenry. Focusing on federal-spending priorities, I assess whether Senior Executive Service (SES) members mirror the attitudes of the populace or are likely to inflate budgets for their own personal gain. Contrary to the popular portrayal of the budget-maximizing bureaucrat (Niskanen 1971), I find these federal administrators prefer less spending than the public on most broad spending categories, even on issues that fall within their own departments’ jurisdictions. As such, it may be time to revise our theories about bureaucratic self-interest and spending priorities. [emphasis added]

I was able to read the paper here for free, but I had to register first.

See also: The Case FOR Bureaucracy