Combat the Iron Law

The Iron Law of Oligarchy is a political theory developed in 1911 by Robert Michels. Oligarchy means that power is concentrated in a few people and Michels’ theory says that any organization – even democratic – is developing in this direction. The theory can be summarized that an organization requires a great organization, which means that many decisions are to be made every day, and because decisions cannot be made effective by many, so the power will be concentrated in a few individuals at the top of the hierarchy.

Oligarchies arise because democratic decision-making is difficult and time-consuming. “The most formidable argument against the sovereignty of the masses is (…) derived from the mechanical and technical impossibility of its realization”, said Michels. Meetings are the traditional form of communication to make decisions in an organization. A physical meeting works best if all the participants can see and hear each other without problems. It limits the size of the group. Between 5-11 people is an appropriate number of delegates. Not by coincidence, the decision-making groups tend to be just as many. Our laws and regulations are written for a society where decisions are made in physical meetings, which is one of the main reasons why the oligarchies take form.


If the meeting is the most appropriate forum for decision-making, don’t we have to accept the emergence of oligarchies? Rather efficient and state-controlled organizations in the community than democratic and inefficient most seems to mean. But a physical meeting is perhaps not the best way to decide. American journalist James Surowiecki lists in the book The Wisdom of Crowds some characteristics that a group should have to make wise decisions: Participants should preferably be different from each other, they should think independently and the decisions must be important to them. Physical meetings may counteract these properties and instead lead to the emergence of groupthink. We tend to imitate each other if we meet frequently. We wear similar clothes, sit in the same way, use the same words, and what is worse: We also think and act the same way. This leads to the neglect of counter-arguments and thus taking bad decisions. Groupthink makes the Iron Law of Oligarchy into something more serious than just a problem of democracy.

But also for democratic reasons we should combat oligarchies in the political system. Technological developments have made it possible for people to debate and vote together without meeting. ICT (Information and Communication Technology) allows for broader cooperation with more participants. Decisions no longer need to be taken solely on physical meetings. We can develop democratic cooperation with the aid of ICT that could supplement the system of representative democracy and lead to better decision-making. Policy decisions could be decentralized to a greater extent. The information needed to make a good decision is often held by the people affected by the decision. Decentralization means that the decision should be taken by those affected. If citizens can participate and decide on matters of fact, their interests will determine what they engage in.

The free market works in many respects better than politics. The market has spontaneous communication that the political system lacks. Every time we buy something, it is comparable to a small vote. All small voting together provides market information needed for players to adjust to each other. This information affects both production and price formation. All players on the market contribute, but no one controls the whole. Decentralization is the market’s strength, the ability to organize itself into a system that is not centrally managed. People’s limited information fields overlap sufficiently to allow data to reach those in need.

Switzerland has a political system where institutions for direct and representative democracy interact. Recent studies show that the system leads to more efficient management, a lower tax rate, and fewer evaders because of better mutual trust. But even the Swiss democratic system has flaws. In a referendum last year, the Swiss voted to ban minarets, although five percent of the inhabitants are Muslims. The result is likely due to only 12 percent of Muslims in the country being Swiss nationals and the remaining 88 percent had no right to vote.

The Swiss Minaret Ban underlines how important it is that every citizen can participate in the democratic process. It also demonstrates the importance of decentralization – that political decisions should primarily be taken by those most affected. The Iron Law of Oligarchy explains why direct democracy has been practically impossible for organizational reasons, but it is possible that the problem can be solved by using ICT. Let’s try!

2 Responses to “Combat the Iron Law”

  1. gabrielpezzini Says:

    Apart to the non-democratic aspect of Swiss referendums, the vote for the Minaret Ban brings another question to the democracy experiment:

    – People may vote however they want, but there must be some sort of compelling for the laws to be logically coherent with one another.

    There arises the importance of the Judiciary system, on the way it is today. The ban on minarets probably goes against the constitutional regard for religious liberty. So people should be considered on whether or not to change the “law” regarding religious liberty, so to permit the ban on minarets to be approved.

    – Constitutional clauses need to have a much higher rate of approval to be changed by people, even in direct democracy (for example, 80% of the votes). The 50% + 1 votes system should not be applied here, as it could turn the system much more unstable.

    Apart from all of that, I aprove the idea of the Democracy Experiment and profoundly regret that it’s too hard to found a new party here in Brazil. We can’t make regional parties, to run for elections just in the city or state, just nationwide ones. We need to:

    – collect 228000 signatures all over the country
    – these signatures should be collected in at least 9 of the 27 Brazilian states
    – there should be an at least 0,1% signing rate in each of these states.

    And the big parties want even more restrictive party creation laws. Too sad.

    • pernor Says:

      Dear Gabriel!
      This is a severe point. The laws defends the existing order. If the laws are bad – so is the existing order. Bad laws must be able to changes. The law that don’t allow you to start a local political party should be revised for example.

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