The Dictator’s Handbook, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, is the more accessible version of their 2003 book, The Logic of Political Survival. I’ve noted before how disappointing it is that the Logic of Political Survival was published with a significant flaw in their entire statistical approach, which even the authors acknowledge. Given that, I give less weight to the credibility of The Dictator’s Handbook as a summary of their theory.
So. It’s an interesting read, in that it sets out to analyse self-interested politics with a very descriptive (rather than normative) approach. Their ideas centre around the relationship between leaders and the followers that keep them in power: broken down by the authors into the nominal selectorate (those who, in theory, influence the selection of the leader), the real selectorate (those who actually play a role), and the winning coalition (the minimum group necessary for a leader to gain / remain in power). From there, they use some game theory (not spelt out in detail here), to derive a set of conclusions about how leaders operate.
There are a few broad problems in their approach, however. One was the assumption of rationality built into much of what they discuss. As spelt out in Democracy for Realists, there are a number of ways in which people act irrationally, or vote against their own self interest.
You could, I think, make the case that there is an almost Darwinian mechanism, whereby leaders who are not ruthless will be replaced by others who are – but the authors don’t make this argument, and are simply content to rest on the (I suspect false) assumption of individual rationality.
Their model also doesn’t really address the role of intermediaries that are essential in a democracy. The media impacts voting outcomes, and people who lead organisations (unions, corporations, and others) can have a role as well. But that intermediary role isn’t really unpacked, beyond a brief discussion of bloc-voting.
Bloc voting takes seemingly democratic institutions and makes appear like publicly traded companies. Every voter or share has a nominal right to vote, but effectively all the power lies with a few key actors who can control the votes of large numbers of shares or deliver many votes from their village. Bloc voting makes nominally democratic systems with large coalitions function as if they are autocratic by making the number of influentials-that is, people whose choices actually matter-much smaller than the nominal selectorate of the rest of the voters …
The real decisions are made by the group leaders who deliver blocs of votes.
Another gap, unfortunately, is that it feels as though they dance around the question of what might be called the rule of law, or the balance of power within a society. Why is it, for example, that functioning democracies aren’t always repatrimonialized? What keeps the multiple centres of power in balance, enabling a strong state to provide for its citizens, while held in check by the rule of law, and / or being democratically accountable? What is it that stops the leader in a democracy, from consolidating all power? The frame is one that Fukuyama might use, but I think the underlying question (why doesn’t all power collapse to the centre in a mature democracy) is an important one, and one that is elided in this analysis.
They also over-simplify their analysis of economic life; arguing that essential political freedoms such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and so-forth, can be essential to economic growth, and will therefore be introduced as a necessity when economic growth slows. That felt … flimsy on a number of levels to me.
Those were some of the major ones, but other questions felt as though they were unanswered:
- What exactly determines the size of the coalition that’s necessary?
- What prevents or enables coups in consolidating democracies?
Their oversimplifications, particularly around democracy and voter behaviour, leave them making statements like:
Democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas.
Rather than, for example, a battle of social identities, or other aspect. Again, drawing on a model of rational voters, they argue:
… they [voters] are likely to vote for people who adopt policies that benefit them.
People support leaders who deliver policies that specifically benefit them.
The authors draw a distinction between the normative and the descriptive. Which is an important distinction, but their approach is calloused when they come to describing real-life individuals who have suffered for pursuing positive outcomes:
Mr. Ossebi’s error was to cooperate with Transparency International in its lawsuit to recover wealth allegedly stolen by Congo’s president. Mr. Ossebi died as the result of a suspicious fire in his home.
The closest the authors come to a measure of hopeful analysis is their estimation of the mechanisms that are most likely to lead to distribute power.
Coalition members like small selectorates. Their welfare is enhanced if there are relatively few replacements for them. The incumbent cannot use the implicit threat of replacing them with a cheaper backer as a way to keep more benefits for himself rather than paying his essentials their due. This creates tension between a leader and his coalition. The leader would like to establish a Leninist style, corrupt, rigged electoral system that guarantees him an eager supply of replacement supporters. The coalition prefers monarchical, theocratic, or junta style institutional arrangements that restrict those who can be brought into coalition to a select group of aristocrats, clerics, or military elites.
Leaders and their essential share a preference for dependence upon a small coalition, at least so long as the coalition is very small. However, as the coalition continues to expand, a wedge is eventually driven between what a king wants and what his court needs. When that wedge gets big enough we have an explanation for the emergence of a mature democracy that is so stable it will almost certainly remain democratic and not backslide into autocratic rule.
Their model (visualised below), relies on the assumption that expanding the selectorate increases economic growth, so that there is greater wealth to be distributed.
So, there are two times when the coalition is most receptive to the urge to improve life for the many, whether these are the people or shareholders: when a leader has just come to power, or when a leader is so old or decrepit that he won’t last much longer. In these circumstances coalition members cannot count on being retained … Effective reform means expanding the coalition and that means everyone, including the current essentials, has a good chance of being needed by tomorrow’s new leader.
… even if politics is nothing more than a game that leaders play, if only we can learn the rules, it becomes a game we can win …
First, politics is about getting and keeping political power. It is not about the general welfare of “We, the people.” Second, political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office … Third, when the small group of cronies knows that there is a large pool of people waiting on the sidelines, hoping to replace them … then the top leadership has great discretion over how revenue is spent and how much to tax … Fourth, dependence on a small coalition liberates leaders to tax at higher rates …
Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions-these simply don’t apply to the view of politics that we’ll present in the pages ahead …
… we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why …
The prime mover of interests in any state (or corporation for that matter) is the person at the top-the leader. So we started from this single point: the self-interested calculations and actions of rules are the driving force of all politics.
… The answer to how best to govern: however is necessary first to come to power, then to stay in power, and to control as much national (or corporate) revenue as possible all along the way.
For leaders, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition. The nominal selectorate includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader …
The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that actually chooses the leader.
The most important of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that makes up a winning coalition. These are the people whose support is essential if a leader is to survive in office.
Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art and science of governing.
… small coalitions encourage stable, corrupt, private-goods-oriented regimes.
Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible.
Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible.
Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue.
Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.
Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better.
To come to power a challenger need only do three things. First, he must remove the incumbent. Second, he needs to seize the apparatus of government. Third, he needs to form a coalition of supporters sufficient to sustain him as the new incumbent.
There are three ways to remove an incumbent leader. The first, and easiest, is for the leader to die. If that convenience does not offer itself, a challenger can make an offer to the essential members of the incumbent’s coalition that is sufficiently attractive that they defect to the challenger’s cause. Third, the current political system can be overwhelmed from the outside, whether by military defeat by a foreign power, or through revolution and rebellion, in which the masses rise up, depose the current leader, and destroy existing institutions.
Waiting is risky business. There is no prize for coming second.
The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better of stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation’s ills.
Anyone who thinks leaders do what they ought to do – that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects – ought to become an academic rather than enter political life.
Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1971 because the army did not stop them. And the army did not bother to stop them because the czar did not pay them enough. The czar could not pay them enough because he foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I.
In a democracy it is less difficult, for instance, to detach supporters from the dominant coalition because democrats need such a large number of supporters. Leaders rely heavily on public goods to reward their backers, but precisely because so many of the rewards are public goods that benefit everyone, those in the coalition are not much better off than those outside the coalition.
He [Abraham Lincoln] introduced absentee ballots so that soldiers could vote, with an especially important impact in New York. It is widely believed that the vote of soldiers carried the state for Lincoln in his 1864 race against General George B. McClellan.
What we can begin to appreciate is that no matter how well a tyrant builds his coalition, it is important to keep the coalition itself off-balance.
The practice of gerrymandering has made it such that the odds of being voted out of a US congressional seat are not that different from the odds of defeat faced by members of the Supreme Soviet under the Soviet Union’s one-party communist regime.
Democrats, in contrast, are constantly engaged in a battle for the best policy ideas to keep their large constituencies happy.
If a leader cannot find a reliable source of income, it is only a matter of time until someone else will offer his supporter greater rewards than he can.
The general rule is that the larger the group of essentials, the lower the tax rate.
In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich. And if this is the case, it is important to be loyal beyond all else.
A company that acts responsibly [by sharing resource benefits with local communities] will necessarily have less money to deliver to the government and that will be enough for them to be replaced by another company that is willing to be more “cooperative”.
Who makes revolution? It is the great in-between; those who are neither immiserated nor coddled.
They [economists] treat politics as just so much friction, to be written off instead of dealt with.
From a leader’s point of view, the most important function of the people is to pay taxes. All regimes need money. As a result, certain basic public goods must be made available even by the meanest autocrat, unless he has access to significant revenue from sources, like oil or foreign aid, that are not based on taxing workers.
The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad for staying in power. The logic of political survival teaches us that leaders, whether they rule countries, or committees, first and foremost want to get and keep power.
When fifty-eight votes guarantee victory, and the IOC president can handpick IOC members, politics and control will always revolve around corruption and bribery. As long as the IOC’s institutions remain as they are, vote buying and graft will persist because it is the “right” strategy for any IOC president who wants to survive.
When a system is structured around corruption, everyone who matters, leaders and backers alike, are tarred by that corruption … Increasing sentences simply provides leaders with an additional tool with which to enforce discipline.
Aid is decidedly not given primarily to alleviate poverty or misery; it is given to make the constituents in donor states better off.
Dictators are cheap to buy. They deliver policies that democratic leaders and their constituents want, and being beholden to relatively few essential backers, autocrats can be brought cheaply.
Why, having suffered long and hard, might they suddenly and often in multitudes rise up against their government? The answer resides in finding a crucial moment, a tipping point, at which life in the future under the existing government is expected to be sufficiently bad that it is worth their while to risk the undoubted costs of rebellion. They must believe that some few who have come forward first in rebellion have a decent chance of success and a decent chance of making the lives of ordinary people better.
Many other crucial events in modern political history, from the French Revolution to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, also owe their occurrence to the failure of core supporters to suppress the people at critical moments.
Revolutionary moments often arise, as we saw in the cases of Ghana, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, when an economy is near collapse-so near, in fact, that the leadership can no longer buy the military’s loyalty. Such circumstances are practically inevitable in the vast majority of autocracies. Their rent-seeking, corrupt, inefficient economic ways assure it.
Democrats more often that autocrats fight when all other means of gaining policy concessions from foreign foes fail. In contrast, autocrats are more likely to fight casually, in the pursuit of land, slaves, and treasure.
If a democratic leader wants a foreign leader to follow his prescribed policies then he needs to insulate his puppet from domestic pressures. This means reducing coalition size in vanquished states. This makes it easier to sustain puppets and buy policy. US foreign policy is awash with examples where the United States overtly or covertly undermines the development of democracy because it promoted the policies counter to US interests. Queen Liliuokolani of Hawii in 1893, Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran in 1953, and Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 all suffered such fates.
It is an understatement to say that making the world better is a difficult task. If it were not, then it would already have been improved.
However, the inherent problem with change is that improving life for one group generally means making at least one other person worse off, and that other person is likely to be a leader if change really will solve the people’s problems.
Slavery has been outlawed for about 150 years and yet the electoral college persists, and the primary reason, even if rarely spoken out loud, for its survival is that it allows politicians to construct a coalition of essential supporters that is substantially smaller than would be the case under direct election.
When economic circumstances dictate that a despot’s flow of cash depends on allowing the people to converse, the dictator is truly between a rock and a hard place.