Book Review: The Dictator’s Handbook

The Dictator’s Handbook:  Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita And Alastair Smith

This book is a very cynical one, but that is not always a bad thing.  In fact, when it comes to books about politics, cynicism is often the most insightful approach one can take, and this book is at its heart a book about politics and the sort of constraints that govern those who lead governments as well as institutions.  The authors note, quite shrewdly, that there are really no such thing as absolute tyrannies, as all governments depend on their being some sort of selectorate whose opinion matters and whose help is necessary to keep things going smoothly in institutions or governments, regardless of the official form of those regimes.  Likewise, the authors also note that leaders are successful to the extent that they are able to motivate the support of the selectorate and fend off threats to their authority, which often requires bad behavior.  Those who wish to retain their power over human institutions and human governments will generally find it necessary to do a great deal that is unpleasant, violent, or immoral, and this book provides plenty of varied examples to drive its points home.

This book is about 300 pages long and it gives some shrewd advice in how to deal with political troublemakers in nations and institutions that is surprisingly relevant outside of geopolitics.  The authors begin with some discussion of rules to live by that all too many leaders forget.  After that the authors discusses some cynical rules of politics (1) as well as the importance of not only rising to power by gaining enough powerful support (2), but also being shrewd and ruthless enough to hold on to power (3), even though that frequently means culling one’s inner circle to prevent too many powerful people close to one as well as providing a means for inspiring competition between those who want power.  There is a discussion of the common (and often successful) practice of stealing from the poor to give to the rich (4), as well as how one gets and spends resources (5) in an institution or government.  There is a discussion about corruption (6) as well as the problems of foreign aid (7) and the reasons why Western nations use it so often.  There are also chapters on the people in revolt (8), war, peace, and the world order (9), and a lengthy chapter on what is to be done (10) where the authors distill their wisdom and give some practical advice.

Although there are a great many discussions here, including Cold War politics, the reluctant heroism of Ghana’s Flight Lt. Rawlins, and the politics of Liberia, the insights of the book expand far beyond national politics.  In general, there are strong incentives for democratic nations to give aid to non-democratic nations in attempts to influence their political behavior, not least because it is less expensive to influence a dictator and a small circle of influential people in a totalitarian state than it is to influence a more egalitarian and democratic society to do that which it does not want to do (like act according to the best interests of the United States).  Likewise, both nations and institutions find corruption a suitable way to preserve the support of political elites, regardless of the negative effects this has on the people as a whole.  Indeed, the people only matter when they force government and authorities to take their opinion into account, and that is by no means an easy task to accomplish.  Providing foreign aid to nations in the attempts to make them more democratic is highly likely to fail; it is better to refrain from help and let the misery and unhappiness of a people induce the nation to change.  It is not only the bad behavior of dictators that is profitable, after all.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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