The Dictator’s Handbook. Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics: awesome summary by ebookhike

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The Dictator's Handbook
The Dictator’s Handbook

Author: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith 2011

Authors: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alistair Smith 

Five rules of politics(The Dictator’s Handbook)

The Dictator’s Handbook: Outstanding political scientists of different centuries – Aristotle, Hobbes, Machiavelli – offered a variety of theories of governing the country. All of them were limited by the context of their time or were tempted to ask too abstract questions like reasoning about the essence of justice and the ideal ruler. But politics is not an area where abstract reasoning helps. It all comes down to people’s behavior. The root cause of change in any state is its leader. His selfish calculations and motives are the engine of politics.

Only the leader? “The state is me,” said Louis XIV, and he was wrong. No king, no tyrant can govern alone; this also applies to Louis, who could have done little without the support of the regents in his youth and the support of the coalition in adulthood. The leader is entirely dependent on his environment, and the only question is how big it is.

This environment is divided into three unequal groups:

1) nominal electorate – every resident of the country who has the right to vote; it is the furthest circle of influence;

2) real electorate – a group of people who actually elect the leader of the country (in the USA, for example, these are electors 1 );

3) a coalition of supporters whose support the leader needs to stay in office: in authoritarian countries, this is the closest circle of the leader (for example, a dozen members of the Politburo in the USSR), in democratic countries, the voters who voted for the leader, his party.

Of key importance is a coalition of supporters that guarantees the leader his post. Whether he is a democrat or a dictator, the main principle of holding power is the same – the leader must favor his support group. Hence the five rules of the present ruler:

1. Keep the inner circle as small as possible – they are easier to control, and they can hope for a fatter piece of the state pie. A striking example of such a strategy is the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who was ready to allow mass starvation in the country but could not allow the army to starve – a guarantee of his security.

2. Let the nominal electorate be as large as possible – in this case, you always have the opportunity to replace someone uncompromising from the inner circle with a new candidate, as Stalin did in the 1930s: his population had no real voting rights, but after the Great Terror many managers were given the opportunity to fill the vacant positions.

3. Control the flow of income so that the supporters to whom you owe power do not feel left out …

4. …but pay them just enough to keep them loyal, and not a cent more. The main difference between the leader and the grateful supporters of the regime is that he knows where and how to get money, but they do not (otherwise they would have removed him long ago).

5. Do not be kind to your people at the expense of the money of your inner circle – they will not forgive this. If the advice sounds too cynical, take inspiration from Myanmar’s leader, General Than Shwe, who, after the worst Cyclone Nargis in 2008, ensured that food aid was controlled on the black market by his military backers; as a result, hundreds of thousands of people died from starvation and deprivation.

Does this only apply to dictators? Not at all. Democrats play by the same rules, they just owe their power not to a dozen people, but to tens of thousands of people who vote for them, and public institutions work well in their countries. So the leaders of democratic countries are forced to act more subtly. But they will never go against their constituents in the name of an abstract “people”.

Recall the agenda of developed countries in recent years and we will find the same rules. Are some political parties in the US advocating for immigrant rights? See Rule #2: This is about potential expansion of the nominal electorate. Are politicians arguing over language in the Tax Code? We are talking about rule number 3 – control of income in accordance with the interests of the voters who chose them. Of course, there are costs to this: although Democrats provide their citizens with a higher standard of living than dictators, they remain in power for much shorter periods, always risking losing the next election.

The Dictator’s Handbook

Path to the pinnacle of power

How to take power?

To come to power, the applicant needs to do only two things:

1. Eliminate the current leader and seize the government apparatus.

This is where the loyalty of the inner circle of support, or lack of loyalty to the former leader, is needed, as was the case in Egypt in 2011, when the army, disillusioned with Mubarak, allowed the masses to take to the streets.

It is more difficult for applicants for a high post in a democratic state because there we are talking about a battle not of people, but of ideas. The head of a democratic country can pursue an extremely effective policy and can do good to the people, but a good political strategy does not become a guarantor of absolute loyalty here. With Churchill, Great Britain won the war – and, not waiting for its end, immediately chose Attlee for the post of Prime Minister: the idea of ​​​​creating a “welfare” state proposed by him looked more attractive to the war-weary British than a weary national leader.

2. Form a coalition of supporters that will support the leader in his current status.

At the same time, dictators should not rely too much on those who helped them come to power, because they can repeat this successful experience with some other leader (therefore, the first thing Fidel Castro did when he came to power in Cuba was to repress his former supporters). A new coalition of supporters does not have to be exceptionally capable: people who can govern well may want to do it themselves. Loyalty is the key advantage of the leader’s environment. Therefore, the mediocre Marshal Voroshilov was more comfortable for Stalin than the outstanding commander Tukhachevsky, and loyal Himmler was more convenient for Hitler than the uncompromising Rem.

In democratic (or at least maintaining the semblance of democracy) countries, politicians come up with a variety of ways to win over the electorate – both a carrot (for example, winning over ethnic minorities) and a stick (like Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who allocated quotas for construction of public housing in areas that supported his candidacy in the elections).


How to find the money?

To supply the inner circle with money, the newly minted leader needs stable sources of income. It can be:

1. Taxation. Representatives of different political regimes should be aware of the dangers lurking here. Too high a tax rate does not stimulate the efficiency of citizens – it limits dictators who dream of robbing their people to the skin. The tax burden inevitably falls on the supporters of the leader – Democrats should remember this.

Democrats, however, also cannot raise taxes too much – this is a measure very unpopular with the electorate. But even lowering taxes is often a clumsy measure in a situation where a leader must appease a large number of voters. Reagan cut the income tax by tens of percent, but economists are still arguing about whether this had such a positive effect on the American economy, and if it did, why it did not save the budget from a deficit. Bush Sr. became famous for his spectacular campaign slogan in this regard (“Read my lips: no new taxes”), but as a result, failed to keep the economy: when the risk of a budget deficit arose, his administration increased taxes (Russians may recall a similar failed promise by Yeltsin lie on the rails in case of price increases).

A less clean way to avoid the hassle of taxation and allow your supporters to get rich without too much administrative hassle is to let them profit from their own powers. The official salary of an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia is small, but it is compensated by the fact that the authorities tacitly approve of off-duty “kalym” (which was reported in 2009 by Major Dymovsky, who spoke on YouTube with an appeal “to the very top”). So corruption turns into an instrument of political control.

The Dictator’s Handbook

2. Resources. Happy is the country 2 on whose territory unlimited reserves of oil or gold are found. The leader of this country is even happier, especially if he has limited his inner circle to a dozen or two of his most loyal supporters. He can feed loyal allies and maintain an army without raising taxes. Citizens, in turn, do not feel the tax burden of the state and are not too inclined to protest. The country becomes a hostage to the “resource curse”: it ceases to develop its own industry, does not produce anything, only trades in resources. In democracies with established social policies and diversified economies (like Norway, which lives on oil money), the “resource curse” is less pernicious. But if there is no democratic experience or it is too small, the country that owns the resource slowly stagnates (the case of Russia in the 2000s).

3. Debt cancellation. Rich countries first lend money to “poor” countries, and then they are ready to forgive the debt. Meanwhile, statistics show that after debt relief, many countries begin to increase debt again. Ethiopia was forgiven $4.4 billion in 1999, and its debt was reduced to $5.7 billion, but by 2003 it had grown to $6.9 billion. . Only a severe financial crisis and lack of external support can force them to take serious measures to liberalize the country.

Such is the case of the Republic of Ghana and its leader, Jerry Rollings, who at the beginning of his reign (late 1970s) acted like a conventional dictator until his project of socialism brought the country to economic disaster in the early 1980s. Fortunately, Rollings was quick to change course: he introduced liberal reforms, loosened control over the private sector, and allowed open political competition. As a result, he was elected president twice in free elections and quietly left the post in 2001, when his presidential term expired. Ghana is a rare example of the peaceful transformation of a dictatorship into a democracy.

The Dictator’s Handbook


How often to feed the people?

When managing financial resources, it is difficult, but fundamentally important, to maintain a balance between the rewards of the inner circle and all other citizens of the country. Well-fed happy people will not revolt, even if their country is not all right with democratic freedoms (the experience of modern China). But those who are dying of hunger also behave quietly (the experience of North Korea). As Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov 3 once remarked, “revolution is made not by hungry people, but by well-fed people who have not been fed for one day. “

Of course, some public goods should be available even in the most closed dictatorship. The necessary infrastructure, access to education, and medicine ensure that the labor of people will be productive enough to provide the treasury with taxes. But the keyword is “enough”.

  • Residents of North Korea are guaranteed primary education, and literacy there is 100% (in democratic India – 81% of the literate population). Many dictatorships can boast of the same: children in these countries go to school! But no non-democratic country (with the exception of China and Singapore) has a top 200 university in the world (Kim Jong Un is known to have studied in Switzerland). Too literate are not needed there.
  • Medicine in dictatorships is also developed just enough to keep the population in working order. Dictators love to pose with children at holiday parades, but otherwise, give them little importance. Not surprisingly, the more developed the dictatorship, the higher the infant mortality in the country (this is noticeable in the example of Cuba and Iraq). When the UN gave Iraq infant formula as humanitarian aid, Saddam Hussein allowed his companions to steal it, and the country’s infant mortality rate doubled thereafter.
  • Any country needs a developed road network to transport the products of labor, but in many authoritarian countries, the roads are of terrible quality. The point is not only that their construction is an excellent source of shadow income. The head of the Republic of the Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, once boasted to his Rwandan counterpart Habyarama: “I have been in power for 30 years, and during this time I have not built a single road.” “Now they (the opposition) are driving along the roads you built to get to you,” he added.
  • Even a devastating emergency does not become an occasion to soften the usual order of things. European observers visited refugee camps in India several times after the 2004 tsunami and found that after a short time, residents of the southern state of Tamil Nadu were relocated to safety and received compensation. But in the northern states, people continued to live in tent cities, and these were victims of a cyclone that happened back in 1999! Reason: elections in the southern states are very competitive, and in the north, the poor are often not allowed to vote at all.

This does not mean that leaders do not think about the people’s welfare at all. Nikita Khrushchev, apparently sincerely wanted to improve the situation of the peasants in the USSR, but was a product of the Stalinist system. Therefore, the initially successful agricultural reform of 1953, which reduced taxes on collective farms and increased the purchase prices for products, continued with the development of virgin lands (quite in the spirit of the extensive Stalinist economy) and ended with the catastrophic “Ryazan miracle” of 1959. At the end, irritated by Khrushchev’s impulsiveness, his colleagues overthrew him from the post of head of state.

How to reason with a leader, or why democracy is a bad teacher

As long as the leader of the country depends on a rather narrow circle of people, it is convenient for him to pay them off with corruption bonuses, without thinking about the state of affairs in the country, relying only on obvious short-term measures, such as a, fortunately, turned up resource. And vice versa: the more people determine the fact that the leader is in power, the more the leader will think about the widest possible distribution of public goods. It’s not that Democrats are naturally good, it’s that spreading the maximum benefit is beneficial to them. Of course, only within their own country. As soon as it comes to helping other countries, Democrats turn from angels into devils.

1. Democracies are richer than dictatorships and often lend money to them, not to fight poverty, but to negotiate with their own voters.

Any American in 2002 was interested in al-Qaeda being defeated as quickly as possible, and the US government paid Pakistan about $1 billion to catch the terrorists. The Pakistani government is in a difficult position: if it opposes the Taliban, it will face internal insurgency; if he supports the terrorists, he will face pressure from the United States. This forced Pakistan to raise rates, and America to pay the Middle East “ally” more and more. At the same time, the Pakistani government refused to accept increased assistance, if the contract stipulates liability for misappropriation of funds. As a result, the Pakistanis accepted the money and intensified their pursuit of the militants, and in February 2010 they managed to capture Mullah Baradar – “Taliban No. 2”. Of course, the Pakistanis acted very cautiously, and “Taliban No. 1” remained at large (after all, otherwise, one would no longer have to rely on American help). US aid would be much more effective if paid to the Pakistani authorities after the fact, according to the result.

The Dictator’s Handbook

2. How often do you hear that the United States brings democracy to the world, promoting the spread of the common good! The reality, however, is that it doesn’t pay off for democracies to create other democracies—they’re not as accommodating.

The Democratic logic is cynical but simple: as the coalition that supports him grows, the leader of a developing country becomes more and more dependent on his own, and not on the American people who helped him. So, if the US wants the leader to follow the policy prescribed by them, his environment should be limited, and the possible tyranny of the leader should be ignored. Roosevelt’s famous line about the Nicaraguan leader Samos, “He’s a son of a bitch, of course, but he’s our son of a bitch,” describes such a policy exhaustively. In extreme cases, you can eliminate an objectionable candidate, as happened in Chile with Allende or with Patrice Lumumba in the Congo.


What about the will of the people?

What to do if the cup of people’s patience has run out and the threat of the fall of the regime is close? It all comes down to how big the leader’s circle of influence is. If your power depends on the will of hundreds of thousands of people, it is time to admit a mistake: this is how Lyndon Johnson chose not to seek re-election after the failure in Vietnam. The dictator can only hope for the loyalty of his comrades-in-arms, otherwise, he will face the fate of the Shah of Iran, whose soldiers in 1979 went over to the side of Ayatollah Khomeini.

At the decisive moment, an uprising can provoke anything. No wonder dictators are especially afraid of natural disasters in the politically important centers of the country. When an earthquake hit China’s remote and sparsely populated Qinghai province in 2010, the government’s response was half-hearted. Much more decisive were the actions of the authorities two years earlier, after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, an economically and politically important center where mass protest could potentially threaten the government.

The impulse of any protest is the disagreement of a certain group of people to be satisfied with the benefits that are offered to them now, the expansion of their influence on the authorities. Were there many successful protests and uprisings that led to a more people-friendly regime? Not as much as one would like to think, but not as little as it seems at first glance: George Washington in America and Nelson Mandela in Africa are examples of this. We are not talking about the fact that the politicians of these countries were distinguished by special humanism: such was their political calculation.

  • Washington needed the support of recruits from thirteen different colonies; without the Bill of Rights, with its guarantee of broad public rights, the colonies would not have agreed to serve a single government.
  • The apartheid regime in South Africa faced a choice: remain a rapidly impoverished country under UN sanctions, or give the people political freedom, which will turn into economic freedom. President Frederick de Klerk, who was called the African Gorbachev, made a decision: he released Mandela, who had been in prison for 27 years and allowed free elections to be held in the country, as a result of which blacks received 62% of seats in parliament.

A democratic leader must remember that his actions for the qualitative transformation of the social order are very risky and can always turn against him. Such is the case of Mikhail Gorbachev: the perestroika he announced, which, according to the General Secretary, was supposed to “truly reveal the potential of socialism”, turned out to be his, socialism, grave.


Wars are also politics

The threat to the leader’s security not only arises within the country but also comes from outside: his country can get involved in a war or become its initiator. War is a key political factor not only in terms of redistribution of spheres of influence. The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz rightly called war “a continuation of politics by other means.” The course and consequences of any war must be analyzed not in terms of abstract “national interests” or “global balance of power”, but solely in terms of the interests of the leaders of the countries participating in the war in their political (and often physical) survival.

Democrats and dictators fight very differently.

  • Democrats are in no hurry to get involved in the war, carefully weighing the chances of victory, looking for ways to peacefully resolve the conflict, and paying special attention to maintaining the fighting force (after all, it is a potential electorate). Behind the consent to war is always the will of the voters. At the same time, politicians know that even victory in the war does not guarantee political survival: George W. Bush 1991 liberated Kuwait and “brought Hussein to his knees”, which was approved by more than 80% of Americans, but in 1992 was defeated in the elections by Clinton.
  • Dictators are ready to fight even when the chances of victory are not particularly great, and in case of danger, they easily capitulate, like Lenin, who agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 in order to retain power in the remaining territory.

Sometimes the first and second clash on the battlefield, and then the difference in strategies is especially clear. This was shown by the Six-Day War of 1967, when little Israel in less than a week captured territories four times larger than its own, fighting with countries dozens of times larger in area and population. For the Israelis, the national significance of the military operation was enormous. The Israeli command paid special attention to equipping soldiers and maintaining combat strength. In Egypt, the last word was for Gamal Nasser, who was supported only by a group of generals. It was cheaper for the autocrat Nasser to give away part of the territories than to win the war at the expense of the money of his entourage. And so he did.

The Dictator’s Handbook

The democracies themselves are very cautious about declaring war on each other – only if they are sure that victory will be on their side: this was done by the United States, which launched an operation to invade the Dominican Republic in 1965 to overthrow the leftist government of Caamagno, or the French, who invaded the Weimar Republic in 1923 (Ruhr conflict). Is it a coincidence that 93% of the wars started by democracies over the past 200 years are won by them?

Is it possible to direct a politician to the true path?

There are many countries on the world map, and the relations between them are complex and confusing. And yet there are general principles that allow you to change the world for the better.

1. For any political phenomenon there is a good reason, which is announced in the media, and a real one, which is guided by the leader. A good reason can be masked by the usual rhetoric: “fraternal help”, “preservation of sovereignty”, etc. The real reason is always the same: the leader made such a decision since it directly affects his political well-being and is approved by the closest coalition.

2. As the coalition that the leader must please grows, the head of state inevitably faces a divergence of interests between what he wants and what the people on whom his peace depends want. This creates the basis for the growth of public goods and, as a consequence, the growth of the productivity of a prosperous society. The inner circle of the leader will always resist expanding the circle of interested parties because in this case, they themselves will get much less. But a reduction in privileges is still better than a complete exit from the game, and there are two moments in the mood of the inner circle of power when it is most receptive to democratic change: when the leader has just come to power and when the leader is ready to leave / just left or died. Therefore, the successor of Stalin, Malenkov, after the death the leader, first of all, got rid of the excesses of the previous government: he canceled the case of doctors, began agricultural reform, and curtailed the costly plan for transforming nature. However, he did not disassociate himself decisively from the Stalinist legacy and was soon overthrown by Khrushchev.

3. The denser the world becomes entangled in social networks, the more reliable the channels of social activity become, as evidenced by the protests in Tunisia and the revolution in Egypt in 2010-2011. The sooner the authorities realize that technology is not only an ideological but also an economic factor, which is literally more expensive to exclude, the sooner democratic changes will begin in such countries. The more foreign aid is sent to developing countries to create wireless Internet access and provide the poor with mobile phones, the more liberal the regime will be forced to behave (in January 2011, almost a month after the protests, the President of Tunisia announced to citizens that in the country, in addition to everything else, Internet censorship will be ended; he later resigned from his post).

4. When providing financial assistance to poor countries, developed countries could clearly stipulate the conditions under which they give loans and the performance criteria according to which the result will be evaluated and money allocated. Today, such an obvious model is used quite rarely (think of the example of Pakistan and the United States). Even developed countries should not forgive debts to dictators. Money can be allocated only after the head of the country has taken real steps towards democratic freedoms.

Numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that help Africans fight disease or teach them to read and write may argue that help can be more than just financial, and in this case much more productive. Alas, this is usually not the case. The basic medical and educational assistance that NGOs provide is the social minimum that the autocrats themselves provide. The appearance of volunteers in their country only means that the next African leader has an excellent opportunity to save on social benefits.

The Dictator’s Handbook

5. The United Nations could create a body of international law that would guarantee the dictators whose countries were in revolt to peacefully leave office in exchange for amnesty and even some financial preferences (Nelson Mandela resorted to this practice, guaranteeing the safety of former criminals of apartheid in South Africa in exchange for their confession to the crimes). It looks like an unfair decision, but this is the measure that can prevent much more bloody events (remember the fate of Gaddafi in 2011); Ultimately, this decision is in favor of the majority of the country’s inhabitants, who get a chance for a different life.

6. The world community should not rely on elections, even those held according to all the rules. This practice too often discredits itself: dictators willingly hold elections, after which everything remains as it was. There is no need for corrupt officials to cheat in the counting of votes or block people’s way to the polls because they have deprived the opposition of freedom of speech in advance. It is necessary to fight not with the consequence, but with the cause of unfreedom.

States such as Singapore or China prove that it is possible to live well and comfortably in non-free conditions, but this is the exception, not the rule. Do not count on the complacency of the autocracy: sooner or later, its appetites will grow, and then it will take the last thing from its citizens.

No leader will willingly give away freedoms left and right, but the people of his country should know that a leader can be forced to do so.

Top 10 Thoughts

1. “The state is me” is a false thesis. Any leader is entirely dependent on his environment.

2. The main lesson for all leaders: do not worry about the public good, but about your support group prospering. This is true for democracies as well as dictatorships.

3. If the power of the leader depends on a couple of dozen people, he does not care about the rest of the people. The larger the leader’s support group and the more resolute it is, the more inevitably the head of the country takes liberal measures.

4. Statements by democratic leaders that they want to “bring democracy to other countries” are false.

5. Resource wealth means that the leader has a constant stream of income and does not need to worry about the economic development of the country. Resource wealth is a resource curse. It is necessary to stake not on a resource, but on a diversified economy.

6. War is the continuation of politics by other means, behind every military decision are the interests of the leader and his support group. But if you live in a democratic state, the chances of surviving a war are greater.

7. To forgive the debts of dictatorships means to favor such a regime. When providing financial assistance to poor countries, the conditions under which the result will be evaluated and the money will be allocated should be clearly stipulated.

8. The world community should not rely on elections, even if they are held in good faith. Dictators willingly hold elections, after which everything remains as it was.

9. The denser the world is entangled in social networks, the more reliable the channels of social activity, and the closer social changes are in authoritarian states.

10. Revolutionary moods should be expected not from the hungry, but from the well-fed, who have not been fed for one day.

1.  Electors (Electoral College) – representatives of American electors who have the right to vote in each state. The larger the population of the state, the more electors.

2.  About how ephemeral such “happiness” is, read the summary of the book by Andrey Movchan and Alexey Mitrov’s “Damned Economies”. 

3.  Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov – Sovietologist, writer, publicist, public figure, doctor of political sciences, honorary citizen of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR.

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