The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, 319 pp

All prizes go to the authors for coming up with a very catchy title—The Dictator’s Handbook—although not necessarily one that will send books flying off the shelves.

My first reaction in picking up this book was: Who would buy it? Would Robert Mugabe be nipping down to his local Borders store in Harare to pick up a copy? Might Bashar al-Assad look to this book to provide some useful tips on how he might stay in power in the face of rebellion around the Syrian countryside?  And is boyish-looking leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, waiting for this book to be translated into Korean?  As all three of these leaders’ hold on power is tenuous, I imagine they’ll be queuing up to buy a copy.

The audience of this book, however, is much broader. The closest analogy I can think of is Machiavelli’s The Prince.  This book has been a bestseller among potentiates over the centuries, which is not necessarily good news. Thankfully, it has also been available to those who are ruled over by those very same potentiates, providing us with insights into exactly how they connive and manipulate to stay in power. The Dictator’s Handbook is an updated version of The Prince.  While Machiavelli based his book on observations that were at hand in Florence and other Italian states, The Dictator’s Handbook is based on extensive academic research by its authors.

This is not a moral book but addresses the ruthless business of how leaders survive and thrive when in power.   Therefore, while the title refers to “dictators,” it applies equally to democracies where a powerful elite control the levers of power.

Based on what is known as the “selectorate theory,” this is a readable adaptation of what the authors, together with political scientists Randolph Siverson and James Morrow, dealt with in more detail in another book, The Logic of Political Survival.

Put simply, they argue that all political systems have a selectorate, who have the ability to choose their rulers. In a democracy, this is all adults over eighteen years of age, but it could be the army or tribes in autocracies.  Successful rulers will create a winning coalition within the selectorate, and as they had to bribe coalition members to stay in power, it is best that it is small. An astute dictator will also ensure that he or she has alternatives within the selectorate and can put together another winning coalition should the circumstances demand.  They also need to control the treasury so they can buy the loyalty of members of the winning coalition and ensure that they can’t be outbid by some aspiring ruler looking to replace them. Most importantly, dictators are not in the business of spreading money around to make the lives of the people better, because this merely diverts money out of the hands of their winning coalition.

Rather than starting in the glittering palace of some tinpot despot, the authors use the small LA suburb of Bell to demonstrate how easy it is to corrupt the political system. What is more loathsome about this example is that despotism is just as easy to create in a democracy as it is in a military dictatorship.

While the population of Bell is 36,600, most of the residents are poor Hispanics and Latinos who don’t vote. As a result, the council was elected by a small number of voters, and councillors were able to stay in power by cultivating those voters. Without scrutiny, the city manager rewarded himself with a salary of $787,000, while the five councillors each collected handsome fees for attending committee meetings.  The result was high taxation to support all those political leeches.  This situation would have continue had not someone blown the whistle, pointing out that the councillors were not even bothering to turn up to the meetings where they were collecting fees.

The authors move onto a number of historic examples to further illustrate their thesis, moving from the Romans to the Ottomans and then on to African and Arab dictatorships of recent times.

None of these cases provide any surprises, but this changes when the authors go on to show that the exact same techniques are used in corporations.  Controlled by the CEO, shareholder democracy is little different than the voting system used within the Soviet empire, with Boards members acting as the loyal Politburo.

Once you see how logical the selectorate theory is, it is remarkable that democracies exist at all because lurking within them are all the levers used by dictators. It therefore takes considerable vigilance to ensure that our politicians keep their hands off those levers.

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