The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Author: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith
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by ben_w   2021-06-10
Books like this?:

“and” is pulling a lot of weight in your sentence, given I’ve not made a claim about general human rights on this thread.

Also? “Common cause” is very different from “has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding”, which I consider important in this context.

by Im_Not_Antagonistic   2019-11-17

You might enjoy The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

The TL;DR is selectorate theory and popular policy is not the same thing as good policy.

by ChillyPhilly27   2019-11-17

Have a read through The dictators handbook sometime. While it's a cynical look at modern politics, it puts forward an interesting thesis as to why democracy leads to better outcomes overall.

Basically, all leaders want to stay in power as long as possible. In order to do this, they need to convince a majority of their selectorate (all those who have a say in who the leader is) that they're the best option for their interests. In a dictatorship this usually means paying off the army and police force. But in a democracy, the leader has to convince a majority of the populace that the opportunity cost of another leader is negative. Because it's practically impossible to convince everyone that things are great when they aren't, democracy therefore produces the best outcomes, even with a disinterested and uninformed populace

by papasmurf255   2019-11-17

Take a look at this book: Dictator's Handbook

Or, in shorter form, Rule for Rulers.

The Chinese government's "essential coalition" to stay in power is very small, likely in the order of thousands (less than 0.01% of the population), whereas in democracies it's a bit bigger (25% - half the people don't vote). When you only need to appease such a small number of people to stay in power you end up granting them a lot of luxuries while doing your best to suppress the rest of the people that don't matter.

by WhiskeyVictor12   2019-07-21

Eat this book

by Bluebaronn   2019-07-21

I was a fan of The Dictators Handbook.

Kissinger's On China was also very good.

by v3ritas1989   2019-07-21

>Oil revenues constitute more than 98% of the government of South Sudan's budget according to the southern government's Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning


So I think you have it backwards!

They also have a lot of metals. So resources are available to theoretically sustain a 10 fold population.

According to prominent political theory(the dictators handbook), HIGH resources that can be extracted with dying slaves or just outright use foraigners to extract complicated resources like oil will lead to a higher chance of a dictator arrising due to a coup leading to policies that make the people poor, keep them stupid and unhealthy. Which in turn leads to the main survival tool of ppl beeing manual agreculture which needs a lot of ppl. All of this will then lead to high birth rates (and death rates).

by visage   2019-07-21

> I think you're not understanding me because I'm not referring to campaigning. I'm referring to the actual policies that the presidents will be pushing.

No, I'm talking about both campaigning and platforms/policies.

> One example of this might be the California rail project recently that was canceled. Had the presidency been decided by popular vote then nobody in their right mind would cancel funding for that. They wouldn't have a choice but to give it more funding. Otherwise they would basically be throwing away the chance at reelection. This would be the case for all the big states and what they want.

Why, though? California has 10% of the US population, and it's not like any sizeable fraction of Californian voters are single-issue in favor of the high-speed rail. ...and if you pander to California visibly enough, you'll piss off the 90% of voters who aren't Californians.

As I understand it, your hypothesis is that in a world without the Electoral College, campaigns would pander exclusively to high-population states like CA and TX, ignoring all of the smaller population states, and their campaign platforms would reflect that.

...but in a world without the Electoral College, those states only have votes in proportion to their population. In the current world with the Electoral College, voting power is concentrated way beyond proportion of the population in the swing states -- FL, NC, PA, OH, MI, etc. The vote rests on a smaller proportion of the population, so you should see more pandering. (This is basically straight out of The Dictator's Handbook.)

So, we should be seeing vastly more pandering to specific states in this world with the Electoral College than we'd see in one without it. least, that's how it looks to me. Could you help me understand why pandering would be more pronounced in a world where voting power is evenly distributed by population?

by window-sil   2019-07-21

I recently read The Dictators Handbook

While it's a good book, I must say it has made me depressed and cynical. But it does explain a lot. If you have any interest in politics, give this one a chance.

CGP Grey made a youtube video about it, which you should watch.

I also read Fear: Trump in the White House. You know if you're interested in this one or not -- it's well written and an easy read. Go for it.

I'm also reading What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by the XKCD guy. It's very funny and informative. I think I'm going to buy his other books after I finish this one.

by ShalmaneserIII   2019-07-21

> I'm left wondering why a mandatory political understanding class isn't thrown in there with it, or at least teach it in high schools or something.

Because an ideological view of politics would be useless, and a practical view of politics would be suicide to the career of the person who introduced it. Parents would be horrified.

Fortunately, we have the internet. In my personal opinion, here's a good quick video about how politics must work from CGP Grey. He starts with dictators, but addresses how it'd be in democracies as well. The ideas seem largely taken from The Dictator's Handbook, which again suggests that you can explain a lot about any political system by noticing that to stay in office, you have certain supporters that you must keep content- this applies to a dictator and it applies to an elected congressman. Hell, it applies to the leader of any organization of any sort.

by motohagiography   2019-07-12
"The Dictator's Handbook" by DeMesquita and Smith is a popular take on their academic work that describes a metamodel for reasoning about power and politics that bypasses how things "may" or "should" work and talks about how they "must" work.

And a general +1 for GEB. If you read that as a teenager, you are different for it.

by killjoywashere   2019-07-04
In light of the prior article about ICANN as an unaccountable private company (1), this is a good time to encourage everyone to read Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's The Dictator's Handbook (2). This is a classic setup for dictatorship by a small cabal (the board): a vast, unempowered populace, a clear source of money (increasing domain fees), and a fairly small elite that needs to be compromised, particularly relative to the size of the unempowered populace.

If governments and corporations haven't already started buying influence, I'd be shocked.


by rarely_beagle   2019-01-13

I think a model that takes a few variables into account could perform pretty well over time and space. Central in this model would be history of being occupied. Also important is harshness of environment encouraging cooperation. Another aspect would be whether or not a Dictator's Handbook scenario is in effect. Often this takes the form of a local leader allowing a foreign power to provide skilled labor and capital equipment to help the country extract resources. In this scenario, the local government's primary job is to use payoffs and/or threats to prevent the local population from interfering or demanding a cut.

Both direct occupation and DH quasi-occupation would create a conflict between the best interests of the citizenry and the best interest of its rulers. Any increase in power of the government could result in decreases of leverage of the population. In this scenario, paying taxes, cooperating with onerous regulations, and providing information to the government could be legitimately seen as a betrayal. This would explain Seoul's unusually high anti-social punishment rate (Japanese Occupation).

I would be very curious how 1760 Boston would have scored on this test. The Boston Tea Party sometimes confuses children because it is a stark example of authorities praising anti-social punishment. Also note Greece's 20th century hardships and Omman's precarious sovereignty given Iran and SA's machinations in the area.

From wikipedia on the ongoing Qatar diplomatic crisis:

> Trump's public support for Saudi Arabia emboldened the kingdom and sent a chill through other Gulf states, including Oman and Kuwait, that fear that any country that defies the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates could face ostracism as Qatar has.

by expo1001   2019-01-13

I'll have to put it on my list. I would also recommend "The Dictator's Handbook " by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita.

by sachinprism   2018-11-10

I would say that countries are really complex systems that cannot be simplified with a couple of variables into developed and underdeveloped.

I always thought that this oversimplification made sense but then I migrated from India to the US and realized that the United States is actually archaic in a lot of things that India is good at. A big example would be mobile payments and mobile internet in general - Even the poorest of Indians are comfortable using mobile wallets and more Indians have mobile wallets than they have credit cards. I think India sort of skipped the plastic money phase and went straight to mobile.

Planet Money has an excellent podcast on the topic of how and who determines the variables that make a country developed or underdeveloped - Essentially it works just like how an inefficient, political system works - The powerful and well networked get to make the decision on what matters

Another thing to factor in is democracy and functioning of the government. There is and there never will be truly altruistic leaders. Every individual is essentially motivated by self interest. So lets a leader comes into power in a developing country, he will have a cohort of individuals whom he has to keep satisfied for him to stay in power longer. This cohort will consist of people who have the most resources in the country - Industrialists, people who own the media etc. The smaller the number of people he has to please, the better it is for him. If the country becomes developed, then there will be more people to keep satisfied and thus it becomes harder for the leader. So development is actually counter-intuitive for someone who wants to stay in power.

There are some interesting exceptions - Saudi Arabia, China etc. It would be really good if someone can explain the rationale of leaders in these countries and how they stay in power. It's difficult to rely on stats such as the Gini coefficient in these authoritarian countries - cause they may be manipulating it.

A really good book on this topic -

There is a video that explains the book perfectly. Could not find it. sorry.

Deviating a bit to reply to one of the comments....

One of the comments here say that knowledge comes at the charity of developed countries - nothing could be further from the truth. Developed countries invest in developing countries purely for utilitarian purposes. China for rare earth minerals and manufacturing, Inda and Bangladesh for clothes etc. There is nothing wrong with this. Capitalism at work. I think one thing that badly affects developing countries is "Interventionism". That is rich people thinking they exactly know what a kid in Kenya needs. This has historically lead to more inequalities and even civil wars in Africa. If you really want to help someone, just give them a small loan, they will know what to do with it.

by captainahob   2018-11-10

Every form of government on this planet has to bend to the will and respond to the needs of the “Keys to Power.” If you haven’t read the book yet, you should. This CGP Grey video is quite well done and explains.

Also you should remember that good leadership has existed and will exist again in this country. How about offering a fucking solution instead of regurgitating the same old speech?

I would propose we get somebody who promises to suck corporate cock, like Trump, but is secretly on the people’s side. Once they get elected they do a 180 and become the next trust buster. An education revolutionary. An energy revolutionary. Somebody to really give these fucks what-for and give the power back to the people.

by rnev64   2018-11-10

Interesting analysis.

Yet I'd like to challenge the fundamental argument : both authoritative and centralized states like Russia and the more pluralistic nation like the US, Canada or UK do not directly act to benefit their people. In all nations a governing elite forms as well a a civil service bureaucracy - and these two groups always act in ways that first and foremost benefit themselves.

There was a famous study of the US (by Harvard researchers iirc) that showed less than 1% of decision by US congress were consistent with what is perceived to be the public benefit or interest - rather it was shown that congress votes according to sectoral interests 99 out of 100 times.

All governing elites in all nations act with such similar selfish interests - but often enough these interests will also benefit the rest of the nation, it's not the intent but it is a byproduct. for example: big trade interests (corporations, share-holders, however you choose to define them) in the US want to keep the south-china seas open for trade because they profit billions off of it (as does the government/civil-service/bureaucracy - indirectly) - the benefit to American citizens in contrast is a secondary by-product.

Situation is similar in Russia: taking over Crimea is something Putin perceives as an interest for his regime but indirectly this is also in the interest of Russians because as you mentioned having Ukraine integrate with western economy weakens all of Russia - thereby worsening the economic situation and the quality of life for all Russians.

Now I am not claiming there are no difference between the western democracies and the Russian democracy (and I believe it is some type of democracy or pseudo-democracy - even if different than the "western" models) - but at the end of the day the fundamental core difference is how big the beneficiary elite is - in Russia it's tiny and in the west it's much bigger.

I believe the book "*The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics *" does a good job explaining this idea - that ultimately the difference between a centralized/pseudo-totalitarian state and less-centralized democracies is only the relative size of the ruling elite - that's still a big difference but it's a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one - as we might like to think.

by JollyGreenJesus   2018-11-10

I'm assuming you're talking about the lackluster response to Hurricane Maria's effects on Puerto Rico. Is that correct?

I agree with you, that it is shameful how the US Government treats Puerto Rico.

I personally believe that a huge portion of the neglect they suffer, is tied to the fact that the territory does not have meaningful representation in Congress, and neither can they vote for the US president.


That's a book written by a couple of political scientists. In it, they explain how so much of a politician's actions are driven by their various types of supporters. Supporters is this sense of the word, means "things that are literally helping someone maintain power". In a democracy, a politician's group of essential supporters is the smallest possible group of people he needs to vote for him/her to get elected.

Eh, just read the book. It's really, really good. You can probably find it for free online as well (legally, through e-libraries). (It's not just about dictators, but all forms of government.)

by V_varius   2018-11-10

Don't forget the first rule in The Dictator's Handbook : No one rules alone.