(#Ad) The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by De Mesquita and Smith is a very interesting and intriguing book that discusses the forces that shape how politicians rise to power, maintain it, and eventually lose it. The following paragraphs are a brief introduction to some of the main ideas and terms used in the book.
The Rules of Political Power
In (#Ad) The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, the authors list the following rules of political power:
- Politics is about getting and keeping political power (not about the welfare of the people)
- Political power is best ensured and maintained when you depend on few essential cronies to attain and retain office (dictators are often in a better position to retain power than democrats)
- Depending on a small coalition of cronies allows leaders to tax at higher rates
- Dictators have the most power when the essential cronies are easily replaceable
According to the authors, in politics, ideologies, nationalities and cultures don’t matter as much as we think.
The 3 True Power Dimensions of Politics
Nobody can rule alone and what determines the balance of power and the politics is how many supporters the leader needs and how big is the available supply of supporters.
These are the categories that determine the extent of the leader’s power and his actions:
Nominal selectors (interchangeables)
Everyone who has at least a legal saying in choosing the leader. In democracies, it includes everyone who has a vote. But also in some non democracies voters are at least “nominal” selectors (ie.: The Soviet Union).
In practice, no individual voter has a big say in who runs the country and the power of a single nominal selector in a true democracy is not much bigger than in countries with rigged elections.
- Real selectors (influentials)
This is the group that actually chooses the leader or the leader who will run for the elections. For example, in communist countries the influentials are the voting members of the communist party.
In the US the influentials are the electors of the electoral college. But since they are bound to vote like the states votes, the nominal selectors and the real selectors are pretty closely aligned.
- Winning coalition (essentials)
The essentials are a subset of the real selectors, and these are the people whose support is essential for the leader to remain in power. They are the people who have the power to overthrow their leader. It includes those responsible for actual policies, like a few key members of the court for kings. very senior civil servants, the highest army generals and so on.
In democracies such as the US or the UK the winning coalition is much larger than in dictatorships, and it consists of the minimum number of voters who can determine the final exit of elections.
Based on the dimensions of political power, this is the definition of dictatorship:
Dictatorship is a government based on a particularly small group of essentials, drawn from a very large group of interchangeables, and usually a small batch of influentials.
And this is the definition of democracy:
Democracy is a government based on a very large number of essentials and a very large number of interchangeables, with the influential group being almost as big as the interchangeables.
- Keep the winning coalition as small as possible: you will need fewer people to stay in power, have higher control over them, and you will save on graft
- Keep the nominal selectors as large as possible: so that you can easily replace troublemakers among the influentials and essentials, and sends the essentials a message that they better behave
- Control the flow of revenues
- Pay your essentials just enough to keep them loyal: and keep them away from the source of money
- Don’t take money out of the essentials’ pockets to make the people better: dictators depend on essentials, not on average citizens (some content taken from powermovers.com)
Top 30 Best Quotes from “The Dictator’s Handbook”
“Coming to power is never about doing the right thing. It’s always about doing what’s expedient.”
“Mugabe succeeds because he understands it does not matter what happens to the people as long as he pays the army.”
“In the end, ruling is the objective, not ruling well.”
“Leaders never hesitate to miscount or destroy ballots. Coming to office and staying in office are the most important things in politics. And candidates who aren’t willing to cheat are typically beaten by those who are.”
“Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling. Buying loyalty is particularly difficult”
“The is no better thing than a rigged election. As long as you are the one rigging it.”
“Leaders on the other hand are rather fond of taxes. As long as they don’t have to pay them.”
“Being a dictator is a terrific job, but it can also be terribly stressful. Especially if money is in short supply. Taxes are a great antidote to stress.”
“In autocracies it is unwise to be rich unless the government made you rich.”
“Even in autocracies with reported good health care system, infant mortality is high. Not because dictators don’t like babies just like the next guy, but they recognize that helping babies doesn’t help them.”
“Place like Singapore and parts of China prove that it is possible to have a good material life with limited freedom — yet the vast majority of the evidence suggests that these are exceptions and not the rule. Economic success can postpone the democratic moment but it ultimately cannot replace it.”
“Democracies are not lucky. They do not attract civic-minded leaders by chance. Rather, they attract survival-oriented leaders who understand that, given their dependence on many essentials, they can only come to and stay in power if they figure out the right basket of public goods to provide.”
“Caesar made the mistake of trying to help the people by using a portion of the coalition’s money. It is fine for leaders to enrich the people, but it has to come from the leader’s pocket, not from his coalition of supporters. Too much greed and too many good deeds are equally punishable.“
“Every type of politics could be addressed from the point of view of leaders trying to survive.”
“Democrats fight where they have policy concerns… war for democrats is just another way of achieving the goals for which foreign aid would otherwise be used. Foreign aid buys policy concessions, war imposes them… democrats would much prefer to impose a compliant dictator,… then take their chances on the policies adopted by a democrat who must answer to her own domestic constituents”
“The world of politics is dictated by rules.”
“It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves.”
“Despite the idealistic expressions of some, all too many of us prefer cheap oil to real change in West Africa or the Middle East.”
“Men always have two reasons for doing things. The good reason, and the real reason.”
“Lee Kuan Yew ruled Singapore from 1959 until 1990, making him, we believe, the longest serving prime minister anywhere. His party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), dominated elections and that dominance was reinforced by the allocation of public housing, upon which most people in Singapore rely. Neighborhoods that fail to deliver PAP votes come election time found the provision and maintenance of housing cut off.18 In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe went one step further. In an operation called Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Rubbish), he used bulldozers to demolish the houses and markets in neighborhoods that failed to support him in the 2005 election.”
“Autocrats can avoid the technical difficulties of gathering and redistributing wealth by authorizing their supporters to reward themselves directly. For many leaders, corruption is not something bad that needs to be eliminated. Rather it is an essential political tool. Leaders implicitly or sometimes even explicitly condone corruption. Effectively they license the right to extract bribes from the citizens. This avoids the administrative headache of organizing taxation and transferring the funds to supporters. Saddam Hussein’s sons were notorious for smuggling during the 1990s when Iraq was subject to sanctions. They made a fortune from the sanctions that were supposed to harm the regime.”
“The three most important characteristics of a coalition are: (1) Loyalty; (2) Loyalty; (3) Loyalty.”
“Pretty much all of us are greedy, some for money, some for adulation, some for power, but all greedy nevertheless. Some few among us have the opportunity to act on our greed, while most of us are confined to pursuing our greed in minor ways”
“Though private rewards can be provided directly out of the government’s treasury, the easiest way to compensate the police for their loyalty—including their willingness to oppress their fellow citizens—is to give them free rein to be corrupt. Pay them so little that they can’t help but realize it is not only acceptable but necessary for them to be corrupt. Then they will be doubly beholden to the regime: first, they will be grateful for the wealth the regime lets them accumulate; second, they will understand that if they waver in loyalty, they are at risk of losing their privileges and being prosecuted.”
“Taxation, especially in small-coalition settings, redistributes from those outside the coalition (the poor) to those inside the coalition (the rich). Small coalition systems amply demonstrate this principle, for these are places where people are rich precisely because they are in the winning coalition, and others are poor because they are not.”
“For autocrats, money spent on people—like infants and little children—who are years away from contributing to the economy is money wasted. Resources should instead be focused on those who help the ruler stay in power now, not those who might be valuable in the distant future.”
“Borrowing is a wonderful thing for leaders. They get to spend the money to make their supporters happy today, and, if they are sensible, set some aside for themselves. Unless they are fortunate enough to survive in office for a really long time, repaying today’s loan will be another leader’s problem. Autocratic leaders borrow as much as they can, and democratic leaders are enthusiastic borrowers as well.”
“After all, our experience tends to confirm that on one end of the political spectrum we have autocrats and tyrants—horrible, selfish thugs who occasionally stray into psychopathology. On the other end, we have democrats—elected representatives, presidents, and prime ministers who are the benevolent guardians of freedom. Leaders from these two worlds, we assure ourselves, must be worlds apart! It’s a convenient fiction, but a fiction nonetheless.”
“It is better to have loyal incompetents than competent rivals. Sometimes of course, having competent advisors is unavoidable.”
“Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures. Bravo for Kim Jong Il of North Korea. He is a contemporary master at ensuring dependence on a small coalition. Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced. Bravo to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin for introducing universal adult suffrage in Russia’s old rigged election system. Lenin mastered the art of creating a vast supply of interchangeables. Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy. Bravo to Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, estimated to be worth up to $4 billion even as he governs a country near the world’s bottom in per capita income.”
“When addressing politics, we must accustom ourselves to think and speak about the actions and interests of specific, named leaders rather than thinking and talking about fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare. Once we think about what helps leaders come to and stay in power, we will also begin to see how to fix politics. Politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.”
About the Authors
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a professor of Politics at the New York University. He is also a prolific author with 16 books on his name.
Alastair Smith is also a professor of politics at the New York University, author of three books and winner of the 2005 Karl Deutsch Award.
He is also the author of (#Ad) “The Logic of Political Survival“.