The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith: the black heart of politics

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good PoliticsThe Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finally! Someone has figured out why politics works the way it does.

I first heard about this book in a Quora answer in 2016 or 2017. It sounded intriguing enough that I put it on my “to read” list and eventually bought myself a copy. Now I’ve read it, and I feel that I have received the best, most coherent, and most consistent explanation for political behavior that I have ever encountered.

I say this as someone who has devoted some energy to trying to understand politics. To that end, I have read a number of Great Books, such as Aristotle’s Politics and Plato’s The Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Marx’s Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, as well as more modern works, such as The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer, among others. They all have valuable things to say, but only now, with The Dictator’s Handbook, do I feel that I have been shown the beating heart at the center of politics.

These authors maintain that all political behavior is ultimately selfish and has a single aim: to gain and hold power. This sounds banal, since we already know that politicians eagerly desire to gain and hold power, and that many of them, perhaps most, maybe even all, will lie, cheat, bend rules, and break laws to achieve this aim. The observation of political life inevitably breeds cynicism. But, cynical though we may be, we still think of the business of politics as being fundamentally about holding ideological views and seeking to implement policies and programs on the basis of these once one gains power; we think of politics as being about governing. Yes, politicians may be ruthless about gaining and holding office, but, once they do, they have a job to do—their real job, which is running things as best they can according to their own lights. And here Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith disagree: gaining and holding power is the job, the only job, of the politician. Everything else is window dressing or a means to getting and staying in power. For a politician who lost this focus would soon be replaced by another whose focus was clearer.

Now this sounds like Machiavelli, and, indeed, of the great political theorists Machiavelli is most clearly the closest in outlook to these authors. Machiavelli sought to teach statecraft to princes, and he saw that gaining and holding power was the primary task of the prince, one to which everything else had to be subordinated. Morality, integrity, justice—all these had to be sacrificed at the altar of power; the prince is necessarily the most ruthless hypocrite in any room he enters, because if he’s not, then he will soon lose his office to the man who is. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith acknowledge this, but they bring a more theoretically worked-out explanation of exactly how rulers gain and hold power. In their view, the chemistry of political power operates between 4 categories of people:

  1. the ruler (king, president, chairman, CEO) himself
  2. the “essentials”: those lesser powers around the ruler whose support keeps him in power
  3. the “influentials”: a wider group from whom the essentials are drawn and who have a say in installing the ruler, such as members of the ruler’s political party
  4. the “interchangeables”: everyone else—people whose opinion and welfare make no difference to the ruler’s hold on power

It is the interactions between these 4 categories of people that constitutes the political behavior of a society or organization, and it is their relative size that determines the kind of society it is, that is, whether the society is one we would label “democratic” or “autocratic.” For it turns out that the societies that we call autocratic all share the trait of being led by rulers who are backed by relatively small cliques of essential supporters, while those we call democratic are led by rulers supported by large groups of essential supporters. There are definite, specific reasons for this that the authors explain at length. But it boils down to a single principle: rulers gain and hold power by bestowing benefits on their essential supporters—and by no other means. The wealth that the ruler can get his hands on is shared out to these essential supporters, with any excess being kept by himself, or, optionally, spent on public welfare. When the number of essential backers is large, then the ruler cannot enrich them very much individually, and is obliged to gratify them in other ways, by enacting public policies that benefit them. And now we have a society that we call “democratic.”

So it turns out that even the most enlightened and just democratic societies are powered by this same political dynamic; it’s just that the ruler, in order to gain and hold power, is obliged to gratify a larger constituency; he has to deliver actual public goods. A democracy is a society in which the interests of the ruler are more closely aligned with the interests of a large share of the public. Autocracies, on the other hand, are run purely for the benefit of the ruler and his supporting clique. The authors show how corruption always serves those in power; that is why it exists, and why it is always worst in the most autocratic regimes. According to Transparency International, the most corrupt country on Earth is North Korea, and it is ruled by the world’s closest approximation of an absolute monarch, Kim Jong-un.

The Dictator’s Handbook has drawn much critical praise, but almost all reviewers and readers say that they find the book depressing. I understand how they feel, but I don’t share that feeling. I found the book exhilarating to read. Why? Because I felt I was finally reading the truth about politics. I became convinced that this really is how politics works. And if we want to improve politics and make any political system more responsive and more accountable to the people who are being ruled, then we need an accurate idea of what is actually going on. As in medicine, you need an accurate diagnosis before you can develop an effective treatment. The authors have a number of suggestions in their final chapter, “What Is to Be Done?”, about how to improve political systems. Those who want to make rulers more responsive and more accountable could start there. The United States, for example, could become more democratic by abolishing the electoral college and by having intelligent software draw its electoral districts, instead of leaving it to gerrymandering incumbents in power.

There are a lot of insights in this book. It is well written and it moves right along. I venture to guess that it may be one of the most politically empowering books you could read. That being the case, I heartily recommend it. If you read only one political book in your life, make it this one. Then, when you see a chance to help expand the size of the group that the leader needs to keep himself in power, you will push for it, and thus push your society in the direction of accountability and good governance.

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