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The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Hardcover – September 27, 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Enlightenment Economics, July 14, 2011
“Machiavelli’s The Prince has a new rival. It’s THE DICTATOR’S HANDBOOK by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.… This is a fantastically thought-provoking read. I found myself not wanting to agree but actually, for the most part, being convinced that the cynical analysis is the true one.”

R. James Woolsey Director of Central Intelligence, 1993-1995, and Chairman, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, July, 2011
"In this fascinating book Bueno de Mesquita and Smith spin out their view of governance: that all successful leaders, dictators and democrats, can best be understood as almost entirely driven by their own political survival—a view they characterize as 'cynical, but we fear accurate.'  Yet as we follow the authors through their brilliant historical assessments of leaders' choices—from Caesar to Tammany Hall and the Green Bay Packers—we gradually realize that their brand of cynicism yields extremely realistic guidance about spreading the rule of law, decent government, and democracy.  James Madison would have loved this book."
Roger Myerson, Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, July, 2011
"In this book, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith teach us to see dictatorship as just another form of politics, and from this perspective they deepen our understanding of all political systems."
Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2011
“A lucidly written, shrewdly argued meditation on how democrats and dictators preserve political authority…. In a style reminiscent of Freakonomics, Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith present dozens of clever examples… The most fascinating chapter in The Dictator's Handbook concerns the rewards that governments provide other governments. The authors make the obvious, but nevertheless controversial, argument that almost all aid money is dispersed not to alleviate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence…. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith are polymathic, drawing on economics, history and political science to make their points…. In other words, the reader will be hard-pressed to find a single government that doesn't largely operate according to Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith's model. So the next time a hand-wringing politician, Democrat or Republican, claims to be taking a position for the ‘good of his country,’ remember to replace the word ‘country’ with ‘career.’”
“In a brutally forthright work, the authors distill the process by which politicians gain and retain power.”

About the Author

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is the Julius Silver Professor of Politics and director of the Alexander Hamilton Center for Political Economy at New York University. He is the author of 16 books, including The Predictioneer’s Game.
Alastair Smith is professor of politics at New York University. The recipient of three grants from the National Science Foundation and author of three books, he was chosen as the 2005 Karl Deutsch Award winner, given biennially to the best international relations scholar under the age of 40.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (September 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 161039044X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610390446
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 5.8 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #225,794 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael Nahas on September 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
(I agree with the review by Esn024.)

The authors put forth a theory: A leader spends most of his efforts just to keep his job. If the leader has to please only a few influential people to keep his job (e.g., the generals of the army), the leader is autocratic and many of the actions you associate with dictators becomes the "logical" thing to do if you want to keep your job. If the leader has to please many people, the leader is democratic and tends to do things that are good for the people.

It's a simple theory, but it (may) explain a lot of behavior. And it leads to some interesting consequences (e.g., autocrats want productive (but docile) workers, so they invest in health care and (limited) education.) Most of the examples are political, but the "leader" term applies to CEOs, mob bosses, and others.

This is a "wide-audience" book. It's not supposed to be "bogged down" with definitions and numbers and technical mumbo-jumbo. It's supposed to be a fun-to-read version of the theory. Still, I've read a lot of "wide-audience" books and, while this was fun to read, it wasn't very well crafted.

* It uses awkward terms: "leader" and "winning coalition" are fine, but "interchangables", "influentials" and "essentials" are unclear and too long.
* It does not clearly define these terms.
* It only gives a hazy definition of the theory. (Not much more than I gave above.)
* It does not have separate terms for "good policy" (effective at keeping job) vs. "good policy" (good for the populace).
* It doesn't define "good for the populace" at all.
* It doesn't do a strong job of convincing the reader that the theory is true.
* It has multiple examples where it's doubtful that their theory is the major thing at work.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Dictator's Handbook" is a book of political theory that aims to follow in Machiavelli's footsteps. It is provocative and has a number of useful ideas, some of which are even backed up by convincing evidence in the book (the section on foreign aid was particularly nice). But at other times, I found reading it to be frustrating.

There are a number of things to keep in mind: first of all, it is very much a work of popular fiction, written in common-sense language for the average reader to understand. Many of the assertions made would not hold water in a scholarly discussion because the definitions aren't very carefully defined, and small but vital details are glossed over.

Despite attempting to rise above the fray and present an overall picture of the political world that is more accurate than its predecessors, the book is very much a product of insular American political culture, and often propagates American political myths. For example, its poorly-argued assertion that the more democratic a society, the lower its taxes (pg. 13, "taxes tend to be low when coalitions are large"), which would be quite surprising to the Scandinavian countries, not to mention (at the other extreme) Dubai.

Another example is the assertion on pg.6 that the United States "has one of the world's biggest winning coalitions both in absolute numbers and in proportion of the electorate" (the authors define this as meaning that the American government is beholden to no less than about one-fifth of the American population). This point, which aligns nicely with American popular opinion, underpins many of the book's arguments as the actions of America are contrasted with the actions of other, less democratic countries (with smaller winning coalitions).
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10 Comments 128 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover
Robert Rizzo -- nicknamed "Ratzo Rizzo" by L.A. Times Columnist Steve Lopez -- is featured prominently in a new book that rivals Machiavelli's famous "The Prince" in its scope, while being much more relevant to the 21st Century. Written by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith "The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics" (PublicAffairs, 352 pages, $27.99) is a good introduction to an academic discipline I'd never heard of, selectorate theory.

Rizzo, the former city manager of Bell, California, a small community south of Los Angeles, stayed in power because he had the support of the city council, which was effectively elected by 473 voters (out of 2,235 who actually voted). The 473 constituted the essential electorate.

The other two legs of this political tripod are the nominal selectorate -- everybody eligible to vote -- and the real selectorate. In the former Soviet Union, the real selectorate -- the winning coalition-- consisted of a few members of the Communist Party who chose the candidates (some would say this has been revived under the regime of Vladimir Putin, who has the power to reject potential candidates for office).

For eighteen years, the authors have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don't care about the "national interest"--or even their subjects--unless they have to.

Selectorate theory posits that the difference between tyrants and democrats is that there is no difference. Governments don't differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching.
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