Book notes: The Dictator’s Handbook

The Dictator’s handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith book summary.

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

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Synopsis: “For 18 years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have been revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the “national interest” – or even their subjects – unless they have to.

This clever and accessible book shows that the difference between tyrants and democrats is just a convenient fiction. Governments do not differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching. The size of this group determines almost everything about politics: what leaders can get away with, and the quality of life or misery under them. The picture the authors paint is not pretty. But it just may be the truth, which is a good starting point for anyone seeking to improve human governance.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I picked this book up as a two-for-one sale on Audible. It sounded interesting and got good reviews. Also, the last couple of months I’ve read books and politics so I thought it would be a good follow up or continuation of that theme.

Key notes:

  • In history, a few questions that seem to re-emerge time after time:
    • How do you tyrants hold onto power for so long?
    • Why is the tenure for successful Democratic leaders so brief?
    • How can countries with section miss guided and corrupt economic policies survive for so long?
    • Why are countries that are prone to natural disasters so often unprepared when they happen?
    • And how can lands rich with natural resources at the same time support populations stricken with poverty?
  • To improve the world, all of us must first suspend faith in conventional wisdom
    • Let logic and evidence be the guide and our eyes will be open to the reasons why politics works the way it does
  • Lessons about the rules to rule by:
    1. Politics about getting and keeping political power, it is not about the general welfare of we the people
    2. Political survival is best assured by depending on few people to attain and retain office. That’s why dictators are in a better position to stay in office for decades than are Democrats
    3. When the small group of cronies knows there are people waiting to replace them, that’s when the leaders have great discretion over decisions and their authority
    4. The dependence on few people allow dictators to tax at high rates
  • Every type of politics could be addressed from the point of view of leaders trying to survive
  • We must stop thinking that leaders can lead unilaterally
    • No leader is monolithic
    • No leader in any capacity can govern alone

Reader’s note: while his book uses real life examples of how these leaders keep their positions of power, I keep thinking about in context of Game of Thrones which is hilarious and more entertaining for me

Reader’s note: I’m definitely zoning out right now. They’re talking about something related to Hewlett Packard and some struggle for power.

The last hour or so reminds me of a mix between my political science classes and my history classes. All interesting stuff, and probably would’ve been interesting to study in college with my courses. But to be honest, it is very boring right now and I see no practical or immediate application for me.

Reader’s note: the main ideas I got from the last section were that getting in power and staying in power are the main drivers for leaders in politics.

  • Democrats aren’t angels
    • As we all know, the victor writes history
    • Leaders should therefore never refrain from cheating if they can get away with it
  • Coming to office and staying in office is what politics is all about
  • It is more efficient to bribe and control voting blocks through influential leaders rather than through individual voters
  • The resource curse: nations with readily available extractable natural resources systematically underperform nations without such resources
    • These nations have worse economic growth, are more prone to civil wars, and become more autocratic than their resource-poor counterparts
    • Having natural resources creates incentives to make societal problems much worse

Reader’s note: this section on money is leaving me with a few key thoughts.

1. Leaders ultimately want money in order to keep their coalition happy and maintain power

2. There is a balance between taxing high to generate revenue (but losing productivity in the masses) and taxing low to gain support

3. Its all about keeping you coalition paid just enough to keep on your side, but not too much, and to balance the Interchangeables from revolting

  • A happy populace is unlikely to revolt. Keep them fat and happy and the masses are unlikely to rise up against you
    • It seems equally true, however, that sick, starving, ignorant people are also unlikely to revolt
  • The most reliable means to a good life for ordinary people remains the presence of institutional incentives in the form of dependence on a big coalition that compels power-seeking politicians to govern for the people
  • Highly educated people are a potential threat to autocrats, and so autocrats make sure to limit educational opportunity
  • War is inherently political
    • War is a mere continuation of politics by other means
  • In a small coalition regime, the military serves 2 crucial functions:
    1. Keep the incumbent safe from domestic rivals
    2. Tries to protect the incumbent’s government from foreign threats
      • In a large coalition government, the military pretty much only has to worry about the latter function
  • Autocratic leaders are wary of expending resources on the war effort even if victory demands it
    • They know their fate depends more upon the loyalty of their coalition than success on the battlefield
  • When it comes to fighting wars, institutions matter at least as much as the balance of power
    • The willingness of democracies to try harder goes a long way to explaining why seemingly weaker democracies often overcome seemingly stronger autocracies
    • History is full of democratic David’s beating autocratic Goliaths
  • Unless they are defeated by democracies seeking policy concessions, autocrats can generally survive military defeat provided that they preserve their resources
  • Coalition members should be aware of their susceptibility to purges

Closing thoughts:

Out of the 11 hours of this book, I probably listened to a solid 3 hours maybe? I had a hard time not zoning out because all of the examples and anecdotes seemed to stretch on and on.

When the book DID eventually get to the main points, it would reiterate it over and over with additional stories.

In my opinion, the main ideas from this book could have been distilled into 1/4 of what was presented and the reader would have still gotten the full value.

However, I do understand that people might just want to listen because they enjoy learning about history and the principles that history teaches. I myself studied both political science AND history, so this is right up my alley.

My biggest thing is that hardly any of this is applicable to the general population or even people interested in self-improvement unless you’re seeking to work in government or politics. Then its an interesting discussion on how and why governments around the world work the way they do.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you love learning about history or are a Political Science and/or History major (like I was) but actually plan to go into those fields professionally.

Nutshell: Ultimately, a nation’s government (whether autocratic or democratic) is driven by leaders who want to get into power and stay in power.

Rating: 2/5

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