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A calculus for politics
on December 30, 2016
No one rules alone and all rulers depend on a coalition of supporters to keep themselves in power. To keep their coalition's loyalty, they must pay them, and they must pay them first. Only then can the dictator take his share. If there is any surplus, the dictator can build a school or a hospital if he or she feels like it.
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