I have recently finished reading The Dictator’s Handbook by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. They are not the first to attempt to give this kind of advice; in Renaissance Florence Niccolo Machiavelli, an out of favour Florentine statesman wrote The Prince, a book which eschewed pious platitudes Machiavelli’s work is now considered a masterpiece. Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, have produced their own unapologetically cynical version of how politics works for the 21st century. They actually claim to have improved on Machiavelli, which is a rather a bold assertion. I won’t go into that, but I will try to give you a flavour of this book.
The Dictator’s Handbook is designed to popularise Bueno de Mesquiita and Smith’s more technical and maths-laden research academic research. The book looks at a number of questions that I’m sure we have all wondered about. Why do leaders whose dismal economic policies wreck their countries keep their jobs for so long? Why are resource-rich lands so often badly run? Why are very unpleasant leaders given vast sums of foreign aid, and what are the effects of this economic assistance? The authors’ starting point is that all politicians set out to gain and maintain power; national interest is not a factor; leaders are interested only in themselves.
The rigid dividing line between democracy and dictatorship is for them a convenient fiction. What differentiates these systems is the most efficient way to stay in power. A ruler has to distinguish between:
- The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables. This includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader.
- The second level is the real selectorate or influentials. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.
- The most crucial of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that comprises a winning coalition or the essentials. These are the people without whose support the leader could not survive in office.
We need to bear in mind that no leader, be they Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan, Joseph Stalin or Robert Mugabe, can do exactly what they want. What differs is the number of people you depend on. When coalition is small it is good to favour the few; corruption rent-seeking and bribery are the most efficient ways to perpetuate yourself in power. You need to dole out private goods to your key supporters. If you try and help the general population and forget about these supporters, you may well find yourself out of a job. On the other hand in a system with a large number of people in your coalition it is impossible to bribe everyone –it would have to be divided to thinly. You need to provide public goods that benefit society as a whole.
Dictators are vulnerable when they first come to power, have a serious illness and when they are old. This is because this is when their supporters are most worried about whether the leader will be able to deliver in the long run. And then there is the fundamental question: how do some autocrats manage to stay in power for so long? To give you a flavour of the book here is an extract from he book where the authors give their five rules for staying in power:
Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures. Bravo for Kim Jong Il of North Korea. He is a contemporary master at ensuring dependence on a small coalition.
Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced. Bravo to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin for introducing universal adult suffrage in Russia’s old rigged election system. Lenin mastered the art of creating a vast supply of interchangeables.
Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy. Bravo to Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari, estimated to be worth up to $4 billion even as he governs a country near the world’s bottom in per capita income.
Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Remember, your backers would rather be you than be dependent on you. Your big advantage over them is that you know where the money is and they don’t. Give your coalition just enough so that they don’t shop around for someone to replace you and not a penny more. Bravo to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who, whenever facing a threat of a military coup, manages finally to pay his army, keeping their loyalty against all odds.
Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. The flip side of rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your “friends” will be gunning for you. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow you, so don’t worry about them. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving you in deep trouble. Bravo to Senior General Than Shwe of Myanmar, who made sure following the 2008 Nargis cyclone that food relief was controlled and sold on the black market by his military supporters rather than letting aid go to the people—at least 138,000 and maybe as many as 500,000 of whom died in the disaster.
The authors talk about the resource curse. Having a large supply of oil enables autocrats to pay off their supporters and accumulate enormous personal wealth. It is tragic that while oil revenues provide the resources to deal with these countries’ problems, they actually create the political incentives to make the situation worse. And foreign aid tends to serve a similar function. There is a fascinating chapter about this aid. It is dispersed not to mitigate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence. The authors cite the famous FDR quote from 1939 about the brutal Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza García: “He’s a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.” And it is much cheaper for a democratic regime to purchase a dictator. Autocratic aid recipients will often be prepared to make unpopular domestic political decisions provided that they receive enough benefits to give out goodies to the loyalists who sustain their power. The classic example of this is Egypt’s rapprochement with Israel – a policy not popular with Egypt’s masses. The Egyptian media then attacks Israel so that the government can extract even more aid for implementing unpopular policies.
There are also some interesting curiosities. Dictatorships often have good records in primary education. They need to have workers with basic labour skills like literacy and numeracy. Universities are dangerous, as they can be focal points for dissent. The authors point out that excepting China and Singapore, no nondemocratic country has even one university rated among the world’s top 200.* Despite China’s vast population, the top ranking Chinese university, Peking University, comes in 46th place. The highest ranking Russian university, the Lomonosov Moscow State University, is 112th. By contrast, relatively small countries like Holland, Norway Canada and Israel have several universities ranked among the top 200. Autocrats want workers to have basic labour skills like literacy. However, they are only interested in higher education for their own children who are often educated at elite foreign universities. Kim Jong Un was educated in Switzerland.
Highways to airports are straighter in dictatorships than democracies. They calculated the ratio of driving distance to the distance as the crow flies from the major airport serving each national capital for 158 countries.10 A low ratio means a fairly straight road; higher ratios, more curves. Of the thirty lowest ratios places where the driving distance is closest to the distance as the crow flies—only two,Portugal and Canada are democracies. The former has the world’s thirteenth lowest ratio and the latter is twenty-eighth. The countries with the ten lowest ratios -Guinea, Cuba, Dominica, Colombia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Equatorial Guinea- are hardly a who’s who of democracy.
2011 was a complicated year a dictators. Gaddafi was a successful leader, who outlasted sevenU.S.presidents, surviving for nearly 42 years. But his complacency led him to ignore Rule 5. He was just too nice. He allowed too much press freedom and educated his people too much. Given the oil revenues he controlled, this was totally unnecessary. It has also been a tough year for democracies, especially here in Europe. Democracies have followed policies that do not seem to have served the public good. Leaders may share the same motivations to remain in power, but democracies create better incentives. This is not a romantic vision of politics. It is not a ringing endorsement. Democracy and dictatorship are not absolute categories. You can’t beat that Churchill quote: democracy is the worst system except all the others.
*Not counting universities in Hong Kong, which were established under British rule before Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997.