10 June 2012

The Dictator's Handbook

The Dictator's Handbook is something quite unusual - a work of popular political science.  I do not mean a book about politics aimed at a mass audience, but a work by academic political scientists -- Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith -- who (with two colleagues) published the founding work of selectorate theory.  The results is like a work of popularized physics: conclusions and some explanation of the reasoning with the math stripped out.  The resulting book offers a compelling explanation about why all governments work -- and fail to work -- the way they do.

The blurb writers make the inevitable comparisons to The Prince, but unless you accept the minority opinion that Machiavelli, a confirmed republican, was writing a parody of princely government, a better analogy in terms of motivation is Edward Luttwak's Coup d'Etat a Practical Handbook.  They are no more interested in educating dictators than Luttwak was; their objective is to inform those of us living in large democracies why dictatorships function -- including those that pretend to democracies -- work the way they must.  And just in case we think it can't happen here in our democracies, the first example is the city of Bell, California.

So what is this wondrous explanation?  The authors offer a series of "Laws"
  1. Keep your winning coalition as small as you can.
  2. Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible.
  3. Control the flow of revenue.
  4. Pay your supporters just enough to keep the loyal.
  5. Don't take money out of your supporter's pockets to make the people's lives better.
Terms such as selectorate and coalition, along with others such as essentials and interchangeables, are carefully explained along with a full explanation of the mechanisms.  The rules are then applied to examples as diverse as Louis XIV and  the Soviet voting system.  It is applied convincingly to the appalling poverty of oil-rich Nigeria and the amazing congressional boundaries of the United States.  It seems to work.

None of this, as the authors point out, says anything about motive.  As Jean Chretien said, "the good politician is the one who wins"; if you ignore these rules, according to the authors, you will neither gain nor keep power and your best intentions will be meaningless.

Am I convinced by their arguments? Yes, pretty much.  I do think that everyone who wants to participate in democracy in an informed way should read this book.  For everyone else, amazing playoffs, eh?