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The Dictator's Handbook

Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

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Reports of political or business leaders behaving badly are always written in terms of character flaws of individuals involved. Which leaves us free to believe that we would behave differently in the same circumstances.

The rules: First, Politics is about getting and keeping power. It is not about the welfare of the general populace. Second, political survival is best assured by depending on a few cronies, so dictators are in a far better position to stay in office than are democrats.

When people say things like "The United States should ..." or "the American people want...." or "China's government should ...." don't understand politics. Think and speak about the actions and interests of specific leaders rather than think and talk about fuzzy ideas like national interest and common good.

Tempting to sir around and pontificate about how world should be, but nobody cares what you think. Easy to tell others how they should behave, but nobody listens to sermons. If you want to improve the world, first understand how it works and why. Once you understand why people do what they do, you can work out how you can make it in their interest to do better things.

Need to realize that no leader is monolithic. Nobody can do exactly what he wants. Nobody can govern alone.

The first step to understanding politics is to see where the money goes. In a democracy it is too costly to buy loyalty through private rewards. The money has to be spread too thinly. So governments tend to spend on policies that improve general welfare. But for dictators and monarchs, it is more efficient to buy loyalty from a small group of power brokers.

To be successful dictator have to make sure you never run out of money. The Russian Revolution is often explained through ideas of marxism and class warfare. But in reality, the revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in 1917 because the army didn't stop them. They didn't stop them because they hadn't been paid by Czar Nicholas. He had run out of money to pay them because he had banned vodka, the tax on which provided a third of state revenue. (He banned it because he thought sober soldiers would be better fighters).

Autocrats use the tax system to overtax everybody (ie raise tax levels to stage where people don't think it's worth trying to earn) and then to pass some of that back in the form of subsides to chosen groups. Democratic governments do much the same.

The wealthiest man in Russia, and the wealthiest man in China, are both in prison. In 2004 Mikhail Khordorkovsky was richest man in Russia and sixteenth richest man in the world, by virtue of owning Yukos oil company. But jailed for tax evasion, a crime for which cd probably convict everyone in Russia. Chinese counterpart Huang Guangyu, who started (from a street handcart) the largest electrical retailer in China, and the richest man in China. Jailed for bribery, again a crime impossible to avoid in doing business in China. But basic crime of each man was that they didn't support the government.

The 'resource curse'. Things like oil revenues could provide the resources to fix social problems of poverty, education, health and roads. But it actually creates political incentives to make them far worse. The dictator seizes control of the asset and auctions it to the companies which will hand over the biggest royalty check. He then distributes part of the bounty to the few men he needs to keep him in power. To make sure the general populace can't organize to rebel, it makes sense to keep them as poor and ignorant as possible. A state with mineral riches is unlikely to become a democracy. It's only when you rely on taxes for your revenue that you have to rule for the benefit of the tax-payers/voters. Perversely, instead of giving foreign aid, Western governments could promote democracy by allowing the price of oil to go up, thus reducing demand, and so forcing dictators to rely partly on taxes and consequent democracy.


When I watched a TED talk given by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita – one half of the academic team behind The Dictator's Handbook – his gait and accent reminded me of the criminal genius Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, in the cult 80s movie The Princess Bride. Vizzini thinks himself a master of negotiation, able to see anyone's true motives and control their behaviour, but his hubris inevitably leads to his demise. Bueno de Mesquita has similar talents, but they've led not to his downfall but to him becoming a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. The message of this book is that no political outcome is "inconceivable". Instead the behaviour of leaders is tiresomely predictable. Along with his co-writer, Alastair Smith, Bueno de Mesquita claims to have uncovered the fundamental laws that must be obeyed to attain and retain political power. The book owes plenty to James Buchanan and Gary Becker, and not a little to Machiavelli, but the result is certainly original. The Dictator's Handbook does for politicians what The Rules did for lonely hearts – and it's not any worse for that.

The authors promise a tick list of simple rules that any reader can follow should they wish to win anything from the mayoralty of Hartlepool to military control of, say, Zimbabwe: "rely on as few people as possible", "make sure no supporter becomes irreplaceable", "find and control the money", "divide it with your allies", "don't take money from your supporters' pockets", and so on. These rules are illustrated with well-told political anecdotes and the book shares revealing insights about the nature of constituencies that leaders must capture in different political environments. It won't surprise anyone that the power structure of FTSE boardrooms has much in common with African dictatorships, but it's good to read the evidence.

There are two problems. First, the book is underpinned by the notion that politicians are self-interested rational actors whose choices are fixed and predictable. Economists used to think the same about consumers but behavioural science proved them wrong. Second, though students of politics, the authors assume the affectations of scientists and, in the cause of "impartiality", create a work of such galactic cynicism that it made me flinch on more than one occasion. "When addressing politics," they state, "we must accustom ourselves to think about the actions and interests of specific leaders rather than thinking and talking about fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare."

(Slate interview Nov 2020)

As President Donald Trump and his allies have spent the past several weeks attempting to pressure courts, state legislatures, and election officials to overturn the results of the November presidential election, Americans have learned, in a Soylent Green–like twist, that their much-vaunted democratic institutions are actually made out of people. From the Senate majority leader to members of county canvassing boards, individuals are making decisions based on their own perceived self-interest about whether to support a defeated leader’s bid to hold onto power.

This observation shouldn’t be surprising to readers of political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. In their 2005 academic study The Logic of Political Survival and its 2011 mass-market adaptation The Dictator’s Handbook, they propose a model for why some leaders are overthrown and other survive, known as selectorate theory. In this model, leaders survive by keeping their “winning coalition”—the essential supporters who actually have the power to overthrow them—happy. The goal of politics is not to improve conditions for the population at large; it’s to extract resources from the population at large and give them to the leader’s winning coalition. And a smart leader always keeps the number of people whom they have to keep happy as small as possible. Despite the book’s title, its model applies to democracies as well as dictatorships. In fact, the authors argue that dictatorships and democracies don’t differ in kind, but instead, in the size each requires to maintain a leader’s winning coalition. Kim Jong-un only has to keep a small group of senior party cadres happy in order to survive. For a U.S. president, the winning coalition is the key voters in swing states who determine the winner of the Electoral College.

It’s a brutally cynical but often refreshing way to look at politics, and I was curious to see what Bueno de Mesquita and Smith made of Trump’s post-election gambit, and the degree to which he’s following the rules of the dictator’s handbook. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua Keating: So I was looking back at it, and the previous times I’ve gotten in touch with you guys, it was about Venezuela and Syria. So, I have to say it doesn’t feel great that I’m asking for your insights on American politics right now.

In your model, the winning coalition that keeps a U.S. president in power is the group of voters in swing states who actually determine the winner of the Electoral College. So, that group has now spoken. But how does selectorate theory explain what Trump is trying to do now?

Smith: I think Trump would like to believe that he depends on a much smaller winning coalition than he actually does. I think his policies were indicative of trying to reward a smaller group of people than the set of people he needed to keep happy. And that’s why he didn’t win.

Bueno de Mesquita: I think he’s going further than that. It’s—in a depressing way—extremely clever. He is trying to redefine the winning coalition as the set of people who certify the vote. And I don’t know how many there are across the 50 states. It’s probably in the neighborhood of two to three hundred, a very small number. And, it certainly has not occurred to either of us that these people have any power.

If you thought you could get away with it, you’d give it a go. But when you know there’s no hope of getting away with it, you don’t even bother trying.

In one of our early books, we have a picture of an election in Kenya. At that time, they used what was charmingly called the “Queue Voting System.” People lined up behind the name of the candidate they supported. And then somebody went up and down the line and counted the votes. And there was a chalkboard in the front. And a person wrote the count on the chalkboard. In the photograph we have, it didn’t come out the right way. So, somebody crossed out the number, and gave the candidate they wanted a bigger number. That seems to be what Trump is trying to do. Trump is trying to make the people who report the vote into the actual winning coalition. He’s going to fail. The courts are not going to allow him to get away with it. But it’s horribly clever.

So, what you argue is that leaders—almost all leaders—do whatever it takes to stay in power. It maybe didn’t really occur to most American politicians before that canvassing boards of state legislatures could do something other than just certify whatever the voters decided. Now that Trump has shown that this kind of post-election campaigning is at least an option, is that going to change the calculation for leaders in the future? Smith: I think there’s definitely lessons to be learned. No politician wants to have to keep more people happy than is absolutely necessary. I have a strong sense that Congress will try and shore up some of the rules and cover some of these loopholes. And state legislatures will try and rule out some of these laws. But it’s sort of a whack-a-mole game, right? [Leaders figure] out a way where they can be beholden to a slightly smaller number of people. And you try and fix that problem, because you don’t want the leaders to exploit them; they just find another. It’s like trying to get rid of tax loopholes.

But I think the lesson we got from this election was that the institutions are flawed and damaged, but you still need tens of millions of votes to win, even with the current system.

I’m always interested in the way you guys talk about public pressure and protest, and the relation between that and the way that decision-makers act. In this case, we’ve seen people heckling that Michigan state legislator at the airport. And clearly, at least some of what’s on these legislators’ minds is the prospect of mass unrest if the popular vote totals in some of these states are overturned. What role do you see public pressure playing in, let’s say, helping some of these key actors reach their decisions?

Smith: It’s not a protest per se in the U.S. that I think is important. The protest just makes it really clear to the legislators that there’s no way they can escape the full consequences of the law if they break the law. And so there’s no point even trying. And that’s what I always think about a lot of these things: If you thought you could get away with it, you’d give it a go. But when you know there’s no hope of getting away with it, you don’t even bother trying. I think deterrence is a very important thing.

Going back to the election itself, as opposed to the post-election drama, you write a lot about the political impact of natural disasters, and leaders in democracies can’t afford, politically, to let large numbers of people die in a disaster. That definitely seems applicable to the election we just had. Is there sort of selectorate-based logic to explain Trump’s lack of response to COVID?

Smith: Being protected from natural disasters or infectious disease, that’s a public good. And that’s something that people value in democracy. It’s a way of rewarding people well. Everyone in New Zealand is rewarded by the fact there’s basically no COVID in New Zealand anymore, right?

I think Trump’s problem was he saw this as predominantly affecting Democratic states. He must genuinely have had no idea how big this thing was going to get. Otherwise, if he knew it was going to get this out of hand, presumably, he would have wanted to do more.

Bueno de Mesquita: As Jared [Kushner] observed early on, this was a blue state problem. So, those are not votes [Trump] was getting. He didn’t care about them. He didn’t need those votes. What he needed, he thought, was a good economy. What he doesn’t seem to have understood is that you can’t have a good economy by just saying, “everybody go back to work,” when people are not going to go out and commit suicide exposing themselves to the virus. This is I think a classic example of that.

Smith: What would actually have been interesting, if Trump had won, would have been to see where the vaccine is going to get sent first. My guess would be that it will get sent to predominantly red states.

Bueno de Mesquita: Well, you know it’s not coming to New York. He just told us that.

Looking at your rules for survival for leaders, you could look at Trump and say he tried to follow many of them. He kept his winning coalition off balance; he shuffled people in and out of offices; he kept them in acting positions where they could be easily fired. He definitely rewarded loyalists. Given the criteria you guys use—where Lenin and Kim Jong-il are considered “good” leaders due to their ability to maintain power—how does Trump stack up?

Bueno de Mesquita: My guess is that had the pandemic not occurred, had he sustained unemployment under 4 percent while sustaining really low inflation, he would have been reelected. And I find that a horrible thing to say. But the reality is he got 10 million more votes in this election than he got in 2016. He had a random shock in the form of the pandemic. He did not handle that well. And he himself became sick, which is not a good thing for reelection. He wound up losing what was, at least for me, a much closer election than I expected. So relative to that, it’s a noisy process, but he did follow the rules rather well

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