Book of the Month

B. Bueno de Mesquita and A. Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, New York, NY, Public Affairs, 2011

From time to time, as if by some miracle, one has the pleasure of coming across a good book on political science. A book, say, like Kautilya’s Arthashastra (The Science of Politics) which goes back to the third century BCE. Or Machiavelli’s Prince, which was ritten in 1512. Or, to mention a modern example, Edward Luttwak’s 1969 volume, Coup d’Etat. A book whose author does not content himself with trying to answer abstract questions such as what the origins of government are, what it is, why it is needed, what its purpose is, what its elements are, how it has developed through history, how it is constructed, what kinds of government there are, etc. etc. But one that offers practical advice on what is almost the only thing that matters: namely, how to gain as much power as possible and keep it for as long as possible.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have written such a book. Right from the beginning, they make it clear that their work is about power, not the glory of God, or morality, or how to improve the lot of the governed. For them (as for George Orwell in 1984, incidentally), the objective of power is power; something which rulers have known and understood since time immemorial, but which philosophers, academics, and assorted do-gooders tend to overlook. Forget about religion, philanthropy, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity (fraternity!), ideology, community, and similar soft-headed fancies. They exist, if they do, in order to serve power, not the other way around. At best they may adorn it; but only fools believe they form its essence.

As the authors, following Thomas Hobbes, say, the key point is that no one is so strong that two or three others, joining together, cannot overcome him. In other words, no man can govern alone; he, much less often she, needs supporters. Simplifying a little, this means that there only exist two forms of government. In one, which throughout history has been the most common by far, the man at the top must make a relatively small number of key supporters happy in order to keep the majority of people in check. In the other, which historically has been far less common, the benefits of government are distributed among a far larger number of people. The former is known as autocracy, the latter, as democracy. As Machiavelli, speaking of aristocrats versus commoners, says, government consists of a balancing-act between the two groups. Anyone who forgets that is lost.

Having erected this framework the authors use it, in my view very effectively, in order to answer a whole range of questions. If dictatorships are often poor that is because, by extracting the resources in question, they discourage people from working and producing. If dictatorships have an abysmal human rights record that is not, at any rate not necessarily, because dictators are bad people. It is because, in order to survive, they have to extract as many resources as possible from the majority of the people so as to pay off their supporters. If natural resources-rich dictatorships often have the worst human rights record of all, that is because, controlling the resources in question, the number of supporters they must bribe is even smaller than in other regimes of the same kind.

If dictatorships are bad at coping with natural disasters—as, for example, the military government of Burma was when it allowed over a hundred thousand people to die in the aftermath of a cyclone—then that is because they tend to divert any outside aid they may get to their own supporters. If revolutions devour their children, as the saying goes, then that is because the dictators whom they bring to power fear, often not without reason, that those “children” could use the same tactics as they themselves did.

If democracies rarely fight one another, that is because the people at the bottom—who, under this kind of regime, do have a voice—seldom have much to gain from war. The same consideration also makes democracies wary of casualties; if their rulers do not care for the dead and the injured, at any rate they are forced to put on a pretense, attend funerals, stand to attention, shed crocodile tears, etc.

Yet do not deceive yourself. Democracies are not necessarily peaceful. Precisely by virtue of being democratic, they simply cannot stand the idea that someone does not like them or share their alleged values. As Franklin Lane, who was President Wilson’s secretary of the interior, once put it: “If the torch of liberty fades or fails, ours be the blame.” Off with the Kaiser’s head! From ancient Athens through the French Revolution to the USA, there are few things democracies like doing better than beating down on small, weak dictatorships. Just ask Kim Jong un.

Briefly, it is all a question of who supports whom and what resources he or she is allocated in return. Morally speaking, democratic rulers are no better, no less inclined to doing whatever they can to cling to power, than their autocratic colleagues. The one difference is that the former rely on the many to keep the few in check; the latter do the opposite. In return, democrats provide some public goods: such as roads, education, healthcare, and, most important of all, the kind of stable legal framework people need in order to work and to prosper. This basic fact, and not ideology or people’s personal qualities, shapes the nature of the governments they form and lead.

Though oversimplified at times, the volume is a real eye-opener. All the more so because it deals, implicitly if not explicitly, not merely with states but with every kind of hierarchical organization: including churches, corporations, trade unions, and what have you. And all the more so because, in the end, all it deals with are things as they have always been, and are, and will always remain.