Book Review: The Dictator’s Handbook


The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith

In a previous academic book, The Logic of Political Survival, the authors and others presented arguments in favor of a political model called selectorate theory. The Dictator’s Handbook is the popular (non-mathematical) version of that book. Oftentimes in political discourse we take disparate political systems and filter them into a one dimensional axis, with democracy on one end and autocracy on the other (a similar filtering happens when widely varying views on morality and policy are squeezed into the left-right axis). What selectorate theory instead argues for is a categorization of political systems into three nested groups:

  • The nominal selectorate, or interchangeables, includes those people who have at least some legal say in the selection of political leaders. In United States federal elections, this includes all adults over the age of 18.
  • The real selectorate, or influentials, are the subgroup of the nominal selectorate that actually choose the leader. In the US, the real selectorate are those who actually bother to vote. In an autocracy like Saudia Arabia, it’s much more limited (only senior members of the royal family count).
  • The winning coalition, or essentials, are the subgroup of the real selectorate who represent the minimum required backing for the leader to stay in power. In the US, this is the group of voters that can give the Presidential hopeful 270 votes in the electoral college. In an autocracy, this number can be only a handful or a few dozen, for example military generals or powerful statesmen. In a corporation this would be the board of directors and major stakeholders that select the CEO.

The remainder of the book is an exploration of the consequences of viewing nations through this lens of selectorates, with the basic axioms or “rules to rule by” being

  1. Politics is about getting and holding onto political power.
  2. Leaders should rely on as small a number of backers (the winning coalition) as possible.
  3. If the winning coalition is small but the real selectorate is large, then the essentials will always be at risk of being replaced and will support the ruler so they can keep receiving their private payoffs.
  4. When the winning coalition is small, the leader can tax the public at large at high rates to pay off his essential backers (the misery of the commons matters not at all).

The basic difference then between a democracy and an autocracy then is this: in a democracy the winning coalition is too large for the leader to afford private kickbacks to all members, and so instead must rely on good public policy; in autocracies the leaders rely on soaking the public to pay off the few essential backers.

Some consequences of this are that autocratic leaders are quick to start wars but will not spend great deals of treasure on winning them (the purpose of wars is to gain additional revenue to pay off the essentials) while democracies would rather make a deal than start wars but if they are in a war they will expend a great deal of resources to win it (they cite a statistics that in the past two centuries democracies have won 93% of the wars they’ve started while autocracies have only won 60%, though I’m suspicious of what the criterion is for “winning” a war). This is because democratic leaders are almost always thrown out if wars go badly, but can gain great support for winning wars (see for example Margaret Thatcher’s turnaround in the polls after Britain won the 1982 Falkland’s War). Another example is in foreign aid: democracies find that paying off autocratic leaders to engage in some preferred policy is relatively cheap (as the costs are spread among a large group of influentials) while autocrats will use foreign aid not to help out the population but to keep the money train flowing to their essentials (that is of course why they were able to secure and hold onto power in the first place). Another takeaway is the toxic effect of gerrymandering, as it allows politicians to reduce the size of their winning coalition which naturally leads towards worse public policies.

I by no means have a deep background in political science and theory, but I think that The Dictator’s Handbook has a lot of deep insights about the political arena and I heartily endorse reading it. The one author, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, has appeared on the Econtalk podcast a few times and if you want to taste the waters before jumping in as those discussions give a good flavor for what the book contains.

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