Review – The Dictator’s Handbook

February 28, 2017


There is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world should be. And there are reasons for this gap. Poverty, corruption and inequality all over the world can be explained by the number of people the country’s leader needs to keep power – the essential selectorate. Leaders will do everything to please their essentials, while simultaneously keep the number of essentials as low as possible. This book is a deeply cynical manifest praising the virtues of selfish, near-sighted politics.

The Dictator’s Handbook starts with a bold premise: there is no functional difference between successful dictators and successful democratic leaders. The optimal strategy for both is to install policies that benefit the people they depend on, and take for themselves what is left. Both types of leaders can exercise the same corruption and reckless focus on personal gain, with the only difference being the number of people they are accountable to, their essential coalition. This point spans the entire book, being repeated ad nauseam.

Democrats have to please the fraction of all voters that is necessary to elect them to power. Depending on the number of parties, faction structure and voting system this can be anything between 5% and 50% of the total population (the fraction of the voting population that needs to elect them to office). An autocrat does not need voters to keep office, but still needs someone to run the military, to collect taxes and to suppress the population. Their essential coalition can be as small as 5 to 50 individuals.

The different size of their essential coalition is the main reason for the welfare gap between democracies and dictatorships: a democratic leader has to tailor their policies to appeal to a significant portion of their country’s total population. Also, as their critical electorate is large and inhomogeneous and they cannot afford to antagonize a subfraction of it, democrats have to try and find the common denominator, the problems that most of their voters have. This leads to policies that make a lot of people better of.

Autocrats must find ways to give money to their essentials, while also diverge a portion of this money stream for themselves. The general population is just the source of this money and has to be oppressed to not become a threat. The Authors also offer an explanation for the resource paradoxon (the fact that the population of countries rich with natural resources is generally worth off than that of countries without): dictators without resources need to extort money from their people, so they need to leave them a minimum ability to produce. Oil, gold and diamonds, on the other hand, can be exploited by foreign companies with little involvement of locals. Dictators from resource-rich countries can almost completely ignore the needs of their population.

The interesting questions of leadership – how to come to power, how to stay in charge, building a dynasty etc. – are all answered with regard to the composition of their essential backers. The Dictator’s Handbook details processes to reduce the number of essentials, using rewards and punishments to gain loyalty, and to suppress the masses of non-essentials, giving descriptions from the corrupt leader’s point of view with colorful real-world examples of outrageously successful (and despicable) democratic leaders and dictators.

Corrupt leaders satisfy their selfish essential coalition, the people thy need to stay in power. According to the authors, this is the fundamental principle behind autocratic and democratic leaders alike. The concept is also directly transferable to business and civic leaders. In spite of the provocative title,  The Dictator’s Handbook does not claim to idealize this behavior, but just describe the reality – so, is it an accurate description? History and present are full of examples of comically corrupt dictators that, while committing horrible crimes against their own population, stayed in the office until they died peacefully of old age. Democratic leaders will make promises they cannot possibly fulfil to get voter blocks while taking all the money that lobbyists offer, and near-fraudulent practices to modify voting results like gerrymandering (setting voting districts to favor one party) in the US or the german excess mandates are commonplace. CEOs and their boards of directors are much closer than they should be, and many companies prefer short-term profits over long-term improvements, because only one of those options can be used as a reason to increase the compensation of top management and directors. I do not want to believe that every leader is corrupt to the bone, but there is a lot anecdotal evidence, only a fraction of it presented in the book, to give some credibility to this theory.

One of the more depressing ramifications of the selectorate theory is that charity does not work. At least not the intended way. Dictators will just pocket a major portion of the money, confiscate goods to sell on a black market or demand that charity money is exchanged to the local currency for ridiculous rates. And these are  the same guys that made a charity necessary in the first place, buy ruthlessly deciding to not spend money to feed their people. So, many charities have in fact helped to perpetuate the misery. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of starving people in Africa, and the inevitable disaster relief will also relieve corrupt governments of any pressure to change or take any action to prevent future disasters.

Governmental foreign aid is even worse. More developed countries give in exchange for policy, not for bettering the life of people. While rarely done overtly, countries providing foreign aid usually don’t care if their money actually goes to the people or gets squandered by a greedy dictator, as long as that dictator fulfills their part of the deal. This usually involves fighting terrorists, or holding back refugees, and sometimes it is as simple as not taking money from another superpower.

Fortunately, The Dictator’s Handbook does present solutions to the situation. Unfortunately these involve many people behaving rationally for a long time. Democratization is the key, and broadening and diversification of the essential selectorate (the people needed to install and sustain a leader). This will require a lot of people actively observing and participating in politics. Foreign aid should only be provided in exchange for democratization and openness, and continuously monitored. And instead of giving to charities, we could vote to let developing countries participate in the free market more easily and actually buy their stuff at fair prices. Right now, the most developed countries pay huge agriculture subsidies, because farmers are a major voter block, preventing other countries to sell their a major export good, food, with a profit. So all we have to do is see the big picture and demand long-term policies without immediate benefit. And maybe even take a cut to our personal income. I’m slightly sceptical this will happen any time soon.

The Dictator’s Handbook is a nasty book. It makes us recollect that the announcement of good actions or even the intention for good actions are far removed from actually doing good. It brings to mind all the corruption and stupidity of politics that we already face at home, let alone on a global scale. And by arguing from the perspective of corrupt leaders, it exposes us, our own selfishness, as the incentive for bad politics. We are the ones that just let this happen, and we readily reward corrupt leaders, as long as we are getting the benefits of being one of their essentials. This book is evil, wise, insightful if slightly repetitive, infuriating and a bit sad.

I greatly enjoyed it.

Key points

  • All leaders are inherently corrupt
  • Leaders depend on other people to gain and keep power – the winning coalition or essential selectorate
  • All differences between leaders can be explained by the makeup of their essential selectorate
  • The essentials need to benefit from a leader to continue supporting them

Author affiliations

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith are political scientists and advisors, and founders of the selectorate theory. The Dictator’s Handbook is a simplified representation of that theory.

Review copy

copy bought
PublicAffairs; 31. Juli 2012
ISBN-10: 1610391845
ISBN-13: 978-1610391849

Get the book on*
Get the book on*
Get the book on*

The Dictator's Handbook - Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Book Cover The Dictator's Handbook - Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith,
July 31, 2012
copy bought
friendly, cynical

Everybody hates despots and corrupt leaders. So why are they so wildly successful sometimes? This handbook lets bad politicians answer this themselves.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: