Murphy’s Law…and Others

Stapp on rocket sled at 421 mph | Wikipedia

I saw an article yesterday on about the origin of “Murphy’s Law:”

If anything can go wrong, it will.

The saying is attributed to Air Force officer/engineer, Captain Murphy, working with Colonel John Stapp on deceleration survival testing. Stapp did pioneering research in aircrew oxygen systems in unpressurized aircraft, and investigations leading to mandatory inclusion of seat belts in new cars. However, Stapp is most known for investigating survivability of high-speed ejection from aircraft. Famously, he was his own live test subject for most of that work. So, he had a keen sense of risk and the need to minimize it!

This made me think about laws as they apply to bureaucracy, particularly city government. You’ve probably seen my post on Bob Littlefield’s “rules” as learned from his ten years on Scottsdale City Council. I’ve found a few more “laws” that I’ve adapted to city government:


  1. Bureaucrats and politicians with short term goals of reputation and reelection will always be in conflict with the long-term civic goals of the residents (adapted from John Moore).
  2. Everything takes longer than it does (simplified Hofstadter’s Law, courtesy of my old friend Bill Packer).
  3. Needs always expand to consume the available tax revenue, plus 10% (adapted from Parkinson’s Law).
  4. In any bureaucracy, there are those dedicated to the goals of the bureaucracy and those dedicated to the bureaucracy itself. Inevitably, the second group will rule (paraphrase of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy).

Stapp himself is credited with the law that states:

“The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”

Definitely some applicability to city government in that! However, the favorite find of my early-morning survey is Augustine’s Law Number 16 about Defense Department spending:

Budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially.

Augustine projected, “In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

I’m sure there’s a parallel to Scottsdale city government somewhere in that law, but I need another shot of espresso to figure it out!

What’s YOUR favorite “law?”

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  1. While I was at Ft. Benning we developed a corollary to Murphy’s Law which we named Warm Beer’s Law. It states: “Anything that can go wrong already has.”

    “Government will always spend every bit of tax revenue plus borrow every dollar it can plus a little more.”
    Milton Friedman. Here are a number of good and relevant quotes:

    “I think the government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.”
    An Economist’s Protest, p. 6; (1975)

    “I say thank God for government waste. If government is doing bad things, it’s only the waste that prevents the harm from being greater.”
    Interview with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind (7 December 1975)

    “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
    Interview with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind (7 December 1975)

    “Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.”
    “Bureaucracy Scorned” in Newsweek (29 December 1975), later published in Bright Promises, Dismal Performance : An Economist’s Protest (1983)

  2. When I was in the US Air Force it noted that they were able to cram a 6 week training course into 6 months and other efficient methods of conservation of time.

  3. Got this recently from an old USAF guy, and subsequently industry executive:

    “The number of personnel will expand to fill all empty offices.”

    So we made a practice of masking off the windows and door lights of any empty offices as a preventive. That would particularly apply to any governmental office situation.

  4. Pingback: Laws of Nature

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