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The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Paperback – July 31, 2012
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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.”
Simply the best book on politics written . Every citizen should read this book.”
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 survivala view they characterize as 'cynical, but we fear accurate.' Yet as we follow the authors through their brilliant historical assessments of leaders' choicesfrom Caesar to Tammany Hall and the Green Bay Packerswe 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."
About the Author
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.
They are also the authors of The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents.
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This rule of course applies to all dictatorships, say authors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, but it also applies just as surely to liberal democracies. It is the size of a ruler’s coalition of supporters that makes a state one or the other.
In a dictatorship, the ruler controls the money and pays off a few cronies, a few generals for instance, who can coerce and control the citizens. The cronies must pay their team, so the ruler must pay his cronies well so they can in turn pay their soldiers. As long as the ruler has the money for all this, nothing will topple him. The money can come from international aid, from income taxes on the citizens or from selling natural resources.
In a liberal democracy, the ruler has much less control over the money. For one thing, most of a country's budget is fixed, civil service pensions, social security, military commitments, etc. For another, the ruler must follow the law when spending what is not already earmarked. He can't just write blank checks to whom he please.
But once those differences are taken into account, power inevitably follows the same principles: all government is about paying off the ruler's coalition.
Effective rulers keep their coalitions small. A city in California did this by relying on voter apathy. Hardly any one voted in municipal elections so that a few hundred voters in effect controlled the budget and paid themselves lavish salaries.
To pay the coalition in poor countries, the dictator insists on handling any cash given as aid; he’ll redistribute it and if the needy are very lucky they’ll get a tiny bit of it. In rich dictatorships, the dictator sells oil or metals or any other valuable commodity and keeps the money for his cronies and himself while providing minimal health and education services to the poor, if they really have to. In a
The same rules apply in rich countries: the ruler pays off the electors with universities, infrastructure and healthcare. And he will still get kicked out in a few years because inevitably the large coalition will feel it isn’t getting enough.
This is not a libertarian manifesto! The authors are quite clear: the answer is MORE government, not less, or at least much more of the good kind of government.
First, we should aim for a larger coalition of cronies, a coalition that in effect includes every citizen. That way, the only way for the ruler to pay off the cronies is to deliver public goods that pay off everyone.
Second, we should improve governance. That way policy decisions are made more transparently and the money can’t be easily diverted to a small clique of hidden enforcers.
My only complaint with the Dictator’s Handbook is its relentlessly cynical tone; but maybe the authors are simply being honest.
Vincent Poirier, Montreal
The basic theory of The Dictator's Handbook is Selectorate Theory. Selectorate Theory has three basic parts. The first is that leaders will do whatever they can to stay in power regardless of all other factors. The logic of this is that if the leader wouldn't do this, they would be replaced by someone who would.
The second part is that from the leader's point of view there are three groups of people. The first is the interchangables who is everyone is who has at least a nominal say in choosing the leader (such as all voters). For the most part, leaders don't really care about this group except to play against the other two groups (which are subsets of interchangables). The next group are the influential which is everyone who's say actually matters in choosing the leader (such as the majority party in a parliamentary election). The leader has to pay some attention to this group especially in democratic situations. The last and most important group are the essentials. The essentials are those whose support are vital to leader's continual existence as a leader (such as smallest group of voters that can change the outcome of an election). As the essentials have the power to make or break leaders, they are the central target of the leader's policies. From this, political decisions can be understood as the leader trying to stay in power against rivals by using these groups.
The other main focus of the book is the difference between autocratic and democratic leaders. Generally the difference is the different size of the respective regime's influential and essentials. An autocratic leader only has a small group of influentials and essentials. Therefore, it's quite easy to win their loyalty with direct private rewards typically in the form of large gifts or corruption. A democratic leader however has a large group of influential and essentials. So large in fact, there isn't enough resources for the leader to earn their loyalty with direct private rewards. Therefore, a democratic leader must use broad public policies that indirectly benefit the influentials and essentials. These policies often have the side effect of being pretty good for interchangables and those who have no say at all. That's why democracy leads to better conditions for all. However ultimately there's no fundamental difference between the leaders of autocracies and democracies, just the situation.
From all of this, the authors discuss how leaders acquire power, stay in power, get money, get foreign aid, deal with revolution, and wage war. It then ends with how to help make autocracies become democracies, and improve American democracy. The book is downright dripping with realpolitik. Everything that isn't about a leader's continued existence as a leader is treated while not irrelevant, much less important. Social programs sincerely for the general good are treated as discretionary spending by the leader out of surplus funds which otherwise could have been pocketed. These programs also have a very hit or miss record as seen by the author's Hall of Shame and Fame.
There's a tension in The Dictator's Handbook. The authors take a very cynical approach to politics and at times speak of dictators in an epic way such as Liberian dictator Samuel Doe's Scarface-like rise and fall of power. Their cynicism reaches it peak on foreign aid which is viewed as democratic leaders entrenching other country's autocratic leaders to the detriment of that country's people for their own political gain. They are also dismissive of the popular claim of democracies doesn't go to war. Instead democracies act like bullies quite able and willing to fight those much weaker than themselves. However, the authors do try to fight being labeled as cynics with appeals to better more democratic world. Ultimately their stance is “don't hate the player, hate the game.”
My biggest grip with the book is the lack of numbers. While this is a mass appeal non-fiction book, I would like a better idea of what numbers the authors consider democratic versus autocratic. It's quite clear that they don't view the pool of democratic influentials and essentials as 50%+1 as they often only will use numbers like 12% to 25% of the population in thought experiments for these groups. That said, a good rule of thumb seems to be if your nation's influential and essentials can fit in a large football stadium, you're an autocrat.
I would also like more discussion on non-nation politics. It's clear that the authors very much think these rules also apply to all leaders everywhere especially corporate ones which due to rigged elections is autocratic. However outside one example of Fiorina's regime of CEO of HP and a vague “the internet will help democratized corporations!” suggestion at the end, there isn't much discussion of this important angle. I would also like more hard numbers to back up conclusions, though the crunch to statement ratio is about par for most mass market non-fiction works. It may have seemed worse than it was as I was coming off Poor Economics's very number heavy, conclusion light approach.
Overall, I do really like The Dictator's Handbook. To be fair, I naturally have a very realpolitik approach to organizations so it's right up my alley. However, it's helped to fix and formulate some of opinions of various politics both in real life and in world building.