Thursday, June 14, 2018

June's Book: The Dictator's Handbook

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
Politics (2012 - 124 pp.)

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith set out their theory of leadership in The Dictator's Handbook that, like many mixed qualitative/quantitative political science theories, is applicable across democracies, autocracies, municipalities, corporations and other organizations. It is that there are small coalitions and large coalitions in charge, that the leader has to please his or her coalition in order to stay in charge, and that the more people in the coalition, the more spread-out the benefits from the leader are. Populations are thus divided into interchangeables, influentials and essentials (the coalition). Essentials are rewarded first, then influential, then interchangeables.

This is best illustrated using examples:

Andy Autocrat leads a resource-rich, but education-poor, postcolonial dictatorship. Andy requires only the support of 20 top military officials, and 3 key foreign investors (including governments), to stay in power. However, Andy's country has 23 million taxpayers. Andy can then raise taxes, pay off the military leaders and foreign investors, pay what little Andy must to quell any rebellion, and then keep the rest.

Dale Democrat has been elected to the highest office of a small but wealthy democratic nation. Dale requires at least 51% of the vote in at least 51% of the electoral districts in order to be re-elected; a little over 25%. In Dale's country of 5 million registered voters, that equals 1.25 million votes. Dale needs to appease these voters, who can easily switch sides, by enacting good public policies. "Keep[ing] the rest", and Andy Autocrat can, would be frowned upon decisively.

The Dictator's Handbook is thus simultaneously a cynical explanation of every leader's objective - to stay in power - but also a tribute to democracy. By appealing to leaders' selfish instincts, we need to make that selfishness work for us, so they argue - and in democratic states, that means

Most of the rest of the book consists of applications of these concepts. Topics from foreign aid (in which it is easier to buy off dictators), to corporate governance (in which the authors advocate for greater coordination among minor shareholders), to many others all siphon through the small coalitions and large coalitions that make up the groups leaders need to please. Whereas autocrats desire many interchangeables (people eligible to become coalition members) but few essentials, democrats typically end up with large groups of both.

Tip for anyone reading this book: have an encyclopedia or similar source, even just Wikipedia, nearby either during or after reading The Dictator's Handbook. The source material is so broad there's no realistic way any reader, myself included, knows the details of all the settings and characters Bueno de Mesquita and Smith introduce. I tip my hat to them for braving such eclectic source material, although this also gives rise to the book's greatest flaw: there is no way any two professors, even combined, can be experts on so many subjects. Therefore, it is inevitable that some of their overviews will be eclipsed by the more comprehensive work of specialists in those fields. (Especially the WWI and WWII discussions, but those are topics for another day.)

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 8