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The iron laws

Whilst roaming the interweb and dozing through meetings, I have collected the Iron Laws of Human Behavior:

1. You get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish.

2. The less you know about something, the easier it looks.

3. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

No particular claim to originality of thought is made, but I rarely get through either a political or a business discussion without seeing one or more of them in action. I will caution the reader that noting the application of an Iron Law out loud in a business setting is not without its risks.

Additional nominations and/or corollaries are hereby solicited.

34 comments to The iron laws

  • Ian B

    “The more harm a policy does, the more blame is heaped on its victims”.

  • Sometimes a book should be judged by its cover.

  • Ian B

    Also, I’d prefer number (1) as “you get more of what is incentivised, and less of what is not incentivised”.

  • Eamon Brennan

    Point one assumes that you are in a position to allocate reward and punishment. That’s why locking people up for taking drugs doesn’t work. The state has to the ability to punish, but only the user has the power to reward.

  • 4.) It tastes like chicken.

  • RAB

    If I dont like doing it
    You shouldn’t be allowed to do it.

  • Nick M

    Calling something by a different name doesn’t make it any different because you can call me Mary-Anne if you so wish but I’m still Nick regardless.

    (Note that Ms Smith).

  • 4. The further one is from a problem, the more control one will be given over the solution to the problem.

  • Monty

    In any organisation, any task that is everyones responsibility, will never be done by anyone.

  • Kevin B

    As a corollary to 3 ‘Whatever leads the morning news reports is a priority, was always a priority and always will be a priority, until tomorrow.’

    (Actually, it’s an absolute priority.)

  • dearieme

    Nobody in the room understands that “priority” used to mean “what we’ll do first” not “what we’ll talk most loudly about”.

  • RAB

    Before you let the sunshine in
    Make sure it wipes its shoes!


  • Dermanus

    Old one, but definitely Iron:

    If you give a bureaucrat an inch, they will take a mile.

  • Steve P

    Nick M:
    To out it another way; you can call a cat a fish but it still won’t be able to swim.

  • The more a policy fails,the more it will be applied,as in,”Socialism has failed because it wasn’t socialist enough”

  • veryretired

    All organizations, as they mature and stratify, become increasngly focused on internal agenda to the detriment of their claimed external purpose.

    Two obvious examples are the judicial and educational systems, but private organizations are also susceptible.

    As a corrollary to the fundamental truth that reality cannot ultimately be denied: All chickens, somehow, someway, always come home to roost.

    This latter, of course, is the most frantically and relentlessy denied of all universal principles by those who view life as an ongoing con game in which moving the shells continuously and keeping the pea hidden is all that matters.

    Finally, respecting individual rights and liberties is an existential threat to those whose primary means of existence consists of coercing and manipulating their fellow citizens. One can never overestimate their level of absolute hatred of, and their capacity for ruthlessness against, the exercise of those liberties.

    (As an aside, I’m very glad to be back onlne. An illness has kept me away, not any loss of interest in these questions.)

  • Billll

    When a politician cites raw numbers, the real story is in the percentages, and vice versa.

    Ex: “Vote Sheriff Smith out, and Jones in as crime here in East Overshoe doubled last year.” (We wrote 2 parking tickets instead of one.)

  • Tom


    Nice to have you back. I hope the illness is defeated.

    Best wishes,


  • Pa Annoyed

    People are only prepared to believe what they already believe, what all their friends believe, or what they would like to believe.

    The demand for intellectual rigour and fact-checking is in inverse proportion to how welcome the claim is.

    Everybody considers themselves well above average, their own opinions to be ‘obvious’, and their own expertise sufficient.

    Everybody considers their own virtues to be the important ones.

    Humans fit their understanding into stories. The better the story, the stronger the belief.

    People imagine themselves to be rational.

    Great success is achieved only through more hard work and sacrifice than most ordinary people are willing to put up with, but none will believe it.

    Aphorisms can disguise anything as wisdom, with sufficient pith.

  • TedM

    People with simple answers to complicated problems do not understand the problem.


    The only exception to the “throwing the baby out with the bath water” saying is Islam. Strain and filter the water and throw out the baby.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Don Alhambra: “When every one is somebodee,
    Then no one’s anybody!”

  • FamouslyUnknown

    As I recollect, one of the Iron rules of institutions is:
    “When something goes wrong, blame the innocent, punish the helpless, reward the guilty, congratulate yourself.”

  • veryretired

    Thank you, Tom. I had pneumonia, which at my age gets a bit tricky. Recovery is proceeding nicely. I appreciate your kind thoughts very much.

  • renminbi

    The stock market will move in such a way as to embarass the greatest number of “experts”.

  • Jason

    The greater the numbers attending the interdepartmental meeting, the greater the likelihood of one attendee asking unneccesary and long-winded questions at the end.

    This is not, as it might appear, a function of probability, but a subset of the broader tenet, ‘Sod’s Law’.

  • John McVey

    All is in motion; a collection of anything will inexorably shrink or grow until the rates of inflow and outflow are a match. It is a wasted effort to attempt to effect a permanent change in the quantity of something other than by altering the relationships between that quantity and its attendant flows.

    That idea isn’t original to me. It’s a stock-standard mathematical point for engineering, for instance. It also applies to a variety of other fields, such as economics – in which while it is true people will insist on ignoring it, usually to their own cost and that of others besides.


  • Brad

    Not exactly a corallary to #2 but an extension,

    2. The less you know about something, the easier it looks, and more likely you will use force.

    Applies, of course, to social endeavors. Progressives and Regressives boil the sum total of human action into easily digested bits of “truth”, and so firmly convinced of such, resort quickly to force as the solution to set everything in order. It’s no coincedence that we have a society here in the US that adores black and white oversimplification and we’re adding pages to the Federal Register at a breakneck pace.

  • Plamus

    For a good source of appropriately illustrated rules and corollaries, may I suggest clicking here ?

  • Plamus

    My personal favorites:

    Arrogance – The best leaders inspire by example. When that’s not an option, brute intimidation works pretty well, too.

    Consistency – It’s only a virtue if you’re not a screwup.

    Dare to Slack – When birds fly in the right formation, they need only exert half the effort. Even in nature, teamwork results in collective laziness.

    Incompetence – When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there’s no end to what you can’t do.

    Possibilities – With focus, dedication and steroids, men can achieve impossible dreams. Like breaking a world record. Or growing their own breasts.

  • jerry

    NOTHING is impossible for he who does not have to actually do it !!

    Pain is nature’s way of telling you to stop what you are doing !!

  • nick g.

    The only thing wrong with this collection is calling it the Iron Laws. Marx said communism was based on the iron laws of economics. Iron rusts. The real reason that communists liked red was because that’s what happened to their economy- it rusted.

  • From G. K. Chesterton: “There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob.” And for “aristocracy” read management or work team or what have you.

  • The Bureaucrat’s Ten Commandments:
    1. Don’t discuss domestic politics on issues involving war and peace.
    2. Say what will convince, not what you believe.
    3. Support the consensus.
    4. Veto other options.
    5. Predict dire consequences.
    6. Argue timing, not substance.
    7. Leak what you don’t like.
    8. Ignore orders you don’t like.
    9. Don’t tell likely opponents about a good thing.
    10. Don’t fight the consensus and don’t resign over policy.
    (–sorry, do not have a source)

    And, if you are pursuing a career in bureaucracy, one of the biggest secrets is that there is indeed such a thing as a stupid question.