L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

19 January 2009 Blog Home : January 2009 : Permalink

Pournelle's Iron Law in Action

Science Fiction writer Dr Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that 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.

There are many many examples of this in action, at the link above he discusses teachers unions and the TSA, and almost anyone who has been exposed the the creeping regulation of practically everything can think of more. However yesterday Instapundit linked to Mark Steyn's latest Orange County Register article where he discusses FEMA's example. He begins by noting that President Bush has designated the inauguration of his successor to be a federal emergency in Washington DC.

One reason why nobody's ever done that before is because a presidential inauguration is not (to be boringly technical about it) an "emergency." It's penciled in well in advance – in this case, so well in advance that for years Democrats have been driving around with "1-20-09" bumper stickers on the back of their Priuses. Emergency-wise, that's the equivalent of Hurricane Dan Rather wrapped around a lamppost in his sou'wester, hanging there in eager anticipation every night for half a decade. Generally speaking, changes of government are only "emergencies" in the livelier banana republics where this week's president-for-life suddenly spots the machete-wielding mob scrambling over the palace walls so nimbly he barely has time to dial the Liberian branch of FEMA and put in a request for extra Portapotties and a rope-line management team.

The proposition that a new federal administration is itself a federal emergency is almost too perfect an emblem of American government in the 21st century. FEMA was created in the 1970s initially to coordinate the emergency response to catastrophic events such as a nuclear attack. But there weren't a lot of those even in the Carter years, so, as is the way with bureaucracies, FEMA just growed like Topsy. In his first year in office, Bill Clinton declared a then-record-setting 58 federal emergencies. By the end of the Nineties, Mother Nature was finding it hard to come up with a meteorological phenomenon that didn't qualify as a federal emergency: Heavy rain in the Midwest? Call FEMA! Light snow in Vermont? FEMA! Fifty-seven under cloudy skies in California? Let those FEMA trailers roll!

And he points out the link between that and all the stimulus packages and bailouts we seem to be getting these days. It is not clear to me how the various bailouts and stimuli can fix issues like the utter collapse in Asian-Euro trade or the disaster that is much of Europe. Reading the former links and this one about the Eurozone I believe my "bold prediction" of 10 days ago is rather less bold than I thought it was.

What is clear is that bureaucrats are going to flock to the controls of the levers of commerce and thanks to Pournelle's Iron Law this fills me with dread.