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Showing 1-10 of 129 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 172 reviews
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
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on September 8, 2013
I found this book to be well worth reading and would recommend it for anyone interested in thinking about or analyzing international politics, the development of governmental power structures, historical developments of organizational elites, the "real" effects of such things as foreign economic aid, and so forth.

Having said that, why then did I give it only four stars? The reason is that I'm still not sure how strongly the authors believe in their fundamental premise, which is that just about every decision (or is it absolutely every decision) made by those in power in organizations of whatever nature base their decisions solely, totally on their own self interest. While I can, and do, accept that such a standard is far, far too common, particularly among political elites or those whose economic interests will be aided by political decisions of the elites, I (perhaps naively) still believe that occasionally people can make decisions based upon what's good for society, or simply because it's the right thing to do, even if it doesn't advance their own material interests.

Possibly the authors make this assumption as a form of teaching lesson, i.e., make the somewhat simple sounding, wide-ranging blanket statement to get the "students' " attention, and then have them study the examples given to develop a more nuanced or subtle understanding of the topic. Fine if that's the case; the absolutism of the "self-interest" rule does seem to make the examples come to life and somewhat easier to analyze, but ultimately I believe we can add some modifications to make the analytical process a bit more realistic.

In discussing the examples, the authors do an excellent job of showing how their pattern of analysis can readily be applied in a large number of areas and they also explain, quite clearly, a very useful way of thinking about the various elements within the particular "society" (country, corporation, major economic group, etc.), that is, those in power, those just below them whose loyalty is necessary for the leaders to continue in power, the next group down who want to enter the second level, and so forth. How members of these various groups will tend to act, who they will support and under what general conditions, and similar matters are all discussed in a clear and enlightening manner.

So, in sum, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how the world works (or at least how one can think about certain aspects of how it works in a number of cases).
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on March 6, 2017
One of the best books I've ever read. It explains a lot about how we govern ourselves and why the leadership ultimately lends itself to corruption and cronyism. A must read for every citizen of the world.
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on January 16, 2017
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita addresses that no one man can rule alone, and that instead that man must keep certain key people happy. That is the only form of governing, as the only difference between dictatorships and democratically elected officials is the number of key people to keep happy. The author proves this point well citing several different real life incidents of what this process can cause and how essential it is to politics. There are few problems I could find with this book but one of the most glaring is the constant cynical mood the author expresses, at first it isnt too bad but after getting half way through the book the point of it was clear. Overall, a good read if your looking to deepen your understanding of the political process
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on January 14, 2015
Absolutely fascinating look at power structure and relationships in all organizations - many of the lessons are relevant to everything from your office politics to the politics of dictators (hopefully the former involves a lot less bloodshed than the latter).

While many books that cover similar topics focus on the state-level model (e.g. "Russia does X because it wants Y"), this book focuses on the pressures and biases that drive the actions of individual people because people want things, not states/countries. It uses stories and examples to illustrate a broad range of points and helps explain behaviors that you may find baffling such as - why do organizations rarely do what is right for the long-term? and why was the nobility of medieval Britain supportive of a hereditary monarchy that prevented them from ever being king?

For those who were expecting a couple of professors to write a more 'academic' book, you will be surprised. The book's references are a lot more sparse and the arguments are more story-supported than you'd expect for a book making such bold claims about the drivers of human behavior. The authors made a trade-off as the book is a lot easier to read and more interesting than lots of books written by professors but it leaves them open to assertions that their conclusions are not sufficiently supported. I am familiar enough with related research and enjoyed their approach enough that I wasn't bothered by their choice but if you often comb through the footnotes and endnotes of every book you read, you may be frustrated.

In short, this is one of the most interesting books I've read and I would whole heartedly recommend it.
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on July 18, 2017
I used to be confused by why politicians behave so badly but after reading the Dictoator's Handbook i am no longer confused. The evening headlines about what is happening in countries like Venezuela are completely understandable and right out of this playbook.
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on May 19, 2015
Mesquita and Smith write a compelling book and engaging read comparable to “Freakonomics” in style. The authors seek to use simple economic logic to explain the staying power of dictators. This might be a foregone conclusion for many- dictators are synonymous with mean nasty people that take away free speech, freedom to assemble, they lower education and health standards, and lower access to political participation. Dictators simply stay in power because they take power away from everyone else and do their best to keep it that way.

The book begins with a “dictator” story of an elected city manager, Robert Rizzo, in the small town of Bell, California. The authors take away the ugly dictator mask and present the idea that anyone- even a Western, elected, white politician in small town USA can be dictator. Their thesis is that all leaders rely on people following them and they stay in power by keeping their following happy, not too powerful, and relying on them as the sole head-honcho. They authors divide the constituency into three parts- the nominal selectorate (pretty much everyone), the real selectorate (those who make a difference), and the winning coalition (those who tip the tide). They argue that the more nominal people are in the selectorate and the larger the winning coalition then the more the leader will reward the constituency with “good” behavior- or policies that provide quality public goods. When the selectorate is small and the winning coalition even smaller (a few generals) then the only thing a leader should do is provide benefits to that handful- they should not try to give benefits to the wider public. The underlying theme for the book is dispassionate leadership- leaders cannot afford to have values, feelings, or virtuous standards to live up to, there is no good or bad behavior. The authors want to drive home the limitation of incentives for leaders. If they want to stay in power their only measuring stick for good or bad is whether the real selectorate and winning coalition are big or small.

I found the book helpful to understand the staying power behind some things I never completely understood- like corrupt police forces and commodity boards. I find that the authors’ arguments hold up to an extent. I am convinced that for any analysis of a government or institution it is absolutely imperative to look at the size of the selectorate and the real coalition to see who is responsible for the leader staying in power and how many are unable to participate. One must understand if the leader has incentives to create more public goods or private goods for cronies.

The authors simply shoot themselves in the credibility foot by comparing and contrasting extremes on the winning coalition scale. For instance, to argue that smaller winning coalition governments have less incentives to provide public goods they compare Chile and Iran. In Iran they have earthquakes a lot but the government doesn’t have the incentives to make sure buildings can stand up to them. In Chile, a democracy, the people make sure the government is on top of making sure buildings can withstand big earthquakes. To show that dictatorships only care about the public to the extent they make the winning coalition happy they contrast primary education levels in Cuba and North Korea to Oxford and Paris. Castro and Kim Jong Il need to make sure the population can read and are healthy so they push buttons on the machines and go to work, but they don’t need Art majors or anyone studying sociology. To show how foreign aid and leaders of resource rich countries have their incentives distorted they present Pakistan. Pakistan has received a lot of aid, the dictator has stayed in power, yet poverty and the Taliban continue to persist.

When the argument relies on extremes the more the “facts” presented might rely on a wider range of correlations than the one suggested. Besides, no one is going to argue that Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, or any of the other figures that come to power wearing a military uniform with stars are not self-interested dictators that don’t care about anybody else. The interesting part of the argument is the possibility it presents for democratic leaders to engage in dictator-like behavior. The book presented only a few cases of this, and one of them ended in an arrest.

I hope the authors come out with a second edition. I feel there is much more to elaborate on in winning coalitions of democracies. I notice that absent from the evidence is a list of governments and the size of the winning coalition in proportion to the population they serve. I think the authors decided to step around the objectiveness of determining the selectorate and winning coalition size- because maybe it can get confusing and polarizing. It is easy to use examples like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because there are clear lines- there is Saddam, then the sons, the generals, and everyone else. But, in our democracy, for instance, there is the media, celebrities, wealthy people, businesses, and tricky campaign finance laws that play a role in greying the lines between selectorates and the winning coalition. It seems there could be much more written about the relationship between these “tools” and the winning coalition.

Secondly, the chapter on foreign aid dealt mostly with US unilateral aid to dictators elucidating on the “alliance trap” and the “hypocrisy curse”. It is known and well understood that much of this aid, especially during the cold-war and to those providing military assistance is not actually for economic, political, or social development. Most aid and development assistance today, which is thought of as real honest development, is done through multilateral actors such as the World Bank, the IMF, the Millennium Development Institute, as well as a host of European agencies. The developing world often sees some of the agencies as agents of the West devising confusing plans that make their country weak and the West better off. A coalition analysis may bring more light to understanding what these agencies, including USAID, are doing and why.

On the second thesis- that there is no morality when it comes to a leader staying in power, I am more shocked than satisfied. There is no evidence presented. It is given as a self-evident postulate. I can see how a leader who wants to maintain office and status quo would be more beholden to the rules to maintaining power presented in the book. However, in democracies, and autocracies, a fair amount of leaders get where they are in order to change the status quo- they are driven by a moral imperative. Sometimes they come from the smallest losing coalition and through some struggle, and without making compromises, they change the interests and values of the other coalitions. Perhaps in the next edition the authors can provide a coalition analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency from election to emancipation proclamation; the Eisenhower presidency from forbearance to 101st airborne deployed on US soil to ensure integration; or the inability pass stricter gun laws despite overwhelming popular support. These episodes are stories of adapting to coalition changes and/or changing coalitions through a leader’s own vigor. Leaders are not always victims of the limitations of their incentives- leaders are leaders because they change things up. I would be intrigued to delve into a book that elucidates on the dynamics of coalition change and the role of leadership; as well as a deeper coalition analysis of US foreign policy in the modern age, and multi-lateral development assistance.
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on November 29, 2016
I have a bit of a fascination with dictators -- particularly the Kims of North Korea -- and thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gave me a wider context in which to consider the Kims, and some theoretical underpinnings, without being too academic/dense.

Highly recommended to anyone wanting to understand how these strongmen manage to retain power in an overwhelmingly democratic world.
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on February 17, 2017
Interesting book. I think he certainly makes a lot of sense, but it's hard to say what's factually applied game theory and what's post hoc, ergo propter hoc. For what it's worth, that's just me playing devils advocate; generally I find this book extremely well written (which also means I happen to find it terrifying when I start applying the thinking espoused in the book to the world today). Excellent read. Just take what he says with a grain of salt, and prepare to see a much more tangled web of power structures than you possibly ever imagined existed.
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on July 9, 2012
There actually isn't much that is new here since the principal insight offered is that most politicians, whether authoritarian or not, act out of their own self interest most of the time. Now that I've spoiled the book, let me offer a much cheaper alternative to get the same ideas in it: Yes Minister (Start with: Open Government) and Yes Prime Minister (Start with: The Grand Design). If you have Amazon Prime, the episodes are free to watch.
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