Why are our leaders misbehaving?

Review on The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. 2012

by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

For those of you who aren’t satisfied with the moral superiority explanations that friends, colleagues and partners use when talking about bad behavior politics and those who have always thought there must be a reason for the patterns in which politicians act must read this book.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith may be known to some insiders for the contribution to selectorate theory and the ~500 pages work The Logic of Political Survival. If you are new to this field, don’t worry, there is no needed prerequisite knowledge for the dictators handbook.

In terms of tradition, the two are definitely not disinclined by Machiavelli’s the Prince. Though, there are several new and original aspects of political behavior that are raised.

The main aspect of selectorate theory is to categorize three groups of people which affect leaders. These groups are the nominal selectorate (also interchangeables: includes every person who have some say in choosing a leader), the real selectorate (also influential: are those who really choose a leader), and the winning coalition (also essentials: are those whose support translates into victory). In addition, BdM and Smith fundamental premise is that leaders are rational, and in its rationality their first objective is to remain in power. That said, BdM and Smith make no fundamental distinction between business leader, autocrats or democrats. Though, they do emphasize extensively that the characteristics of the outcomes within the spectrum of, say, a perfect democracy and a dictatorship differ sustainably.

The book offers solutions from seizing power to maintaining power and beyond. The book suggests 5 main rules to increase the chance of surviving:

  1. Keep the winning coalition as small as possible
  2. Keep the selectorate as large as possible (this makes it easy exchange trouble makers)
  3. Control the flow of revenue
  4. Pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal
  5. Never take money out of you supporter’s pockets to make the people’s live better

The golden rule, however, is the first. On this you can distinguish between an autocrat and a democrat. Because although, the authors, in a Machiavellian tradition, are keen not in having a normative perspective, they do hint on the more effective outcomes in a democracy, and occasionally (and perhaps, rightfully) do praise democracies for doing so. When the winning coalition is small, as in autocracies, the leader will tend to use private goods to maintain the coalition. When the winning coalition is large, as in democracies, the leader will tend to use public goods to satisfy the coalition. Consequently, it can be said, then, that everyone in the selectorate, including the winning coalition, reap the benefits of public goods while only those within the winning coalition enjoy private goods.

The two then go on and explain almost every issue of international politics through the lenses of this theory (from extraction industry revenue and the resource curse to taxation and foreign aid; from military coups to lost elections). The rules are really illustrated in well-told anecdotes, though focusing a lot on African dictatorships – perhaps, because Robert Mugabe, Sargent Doe, Charles Taylor and other really do offer excellent text-book examples for this theory.

What this book also suggests is that, to a large extent, international politics is the sum of internal matters – unlike traditional realist would see our world.

The book is definitely worth reading, not only because it is really an easy read. In addition, more on the selectorate theory can be found in BdM’s TED talk on Iran’s politics. See below:

Thanks to my wife for this excellent Christmas present!