The Dictator’s Handbook (2011) teaches the power dynamics, Machiavellian strategies, and mindsets of dictatorship.
It provides a different and revolutionary approach to political analysis by skirting fuzzy appeals to higher ideals and national interests and focusing on politicians’ and leaders’ self-interest.
The authors suggest that good or bad policies depend not on skills or goodwill, but only on who the leaders need to curry favor with to stay in power.
- Key Insights
- The Rules of Political Power
- Ideology and Nationalism Don’t Matter to Leaders
- The 3 True Power Dimensions of Politics
- Leaders Spend On Those They Need to Stay In Power
- Getting to Power: Here’s How You Do It
- Dictators Are Held In Power by Military
- Companies Follow The Same Rules
- Stop Foreign Aid: It Doesn’t Help, & Might Actually Cause Harm
- Dictator’s Dilemma: Liberty & Tax Revenues or Liberty & Risk Revolt?
- What About Wise, Well-Intentioned Leaders?
- If Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
- Dictators Don’t Care Much About Wars, Democrats Do
- More Realpolitik Wisdom
- Dictators’ Handbook Quotes
- Politics is a big tug of war for power and control of resources
- Democracies are best at guaranteeing prosperity because the leaders depend on the citizens’ well-being to remain in power
- Autocracies lead to mass poverty and a few massively rich cronies because leaders depend on the cronies to stay in power, not on the average citizen.
- The best way to ensure good policies and increase a nation’s well-being is to make the leaders dependent on the whole population.
About The Authors: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He is also a prolific author, with 16 books to his name.
Alastair Smith is also a professor of politics at New York University, author of three books, and the winner of the 2005 Karl Deutsch Award.
He is also the author of “The Logic of Political Survival“.
Introduction: Are You Any Better Than Despots?
We all love the terrible stories of the worst politicians and business executives.
Because they make us feel as if we are superior and would do much better.
Instead, the authors urge us to ask why many, if not most, individuals, behave exactly the same way.
What are the forces that shape politicians to cling to power, bribe, and enslave their populations?
These are the answers that “The Dictator’s Handbook” seeks to provide.
The Rules of Political Power
De Mesquita and Smith list the following rules of political power:
- Politics is about getting and keeping political power (not about the welfare of the people)
- Political power is best ensured and maintained when you depend on few essential cronies to attain and retain office (dictators are often in a better position to retain power than democrats)
- Depending on a small coalition of cronies allows leaders to tax at higher rates
- Dictators have the most power when their essential cronies are easily replaceable
Ideology and Nationalism Don’t Matter to Leaders
In politics, ideologies, nationalities, and cultures don’t really matter much.
Most political commentators and newspapers think in terms of what leaders want to do for their countries, but that’s the wrong way to understand politics.
These sentences make little sense in the world of politics:
The American people want
The Chinese government ought to do
European leaders should do X for the good of Europe
Instead, if we want to understand politics, we must learn to analyze and understand the actions and interests of specifically named leaders, and we must avoid getting lost in fuzzy ideologies such as national interest and the common good.
It doesn’t even make sense to talk about “international relations”, because it’s not about relations among states; it’s about leaders and what they want and seek.
To understand politics, you must think about what’s good for the leader to get to power and maintain power.
That’s the true key to understanding politics—and to learning how to fix politics.
The 3 True Power Dimensions of Politics
Nobody rules alone.
What determines the balance of power and the politics that follow is how many backs the leader needs to scratch and how big the available supply of backs to scratch is.
From a leader’s point of view, these are the categories that determine the extent of his power and the politics that he will likely enact:
- Nominal selectors (interchangeables)
Everyone who has at least a legal say in choosing the leader, In democracies, it includes everyone who has a vote.
But in some non-democracies, voters are nominal selectors (i.e., The Soviet Union).
In practice, no individual voter has a big say in who runs the country, and the power of a single nominal selector in a true democracy is not much bigger than in countries with rigged elections.
- Real selectors (influencers)
This is the group that actually chooses the leader or the leader who will run for the elections.
In Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, this is the senior royal member. In communist countries, it’s the voting members of the communist party.
In the US, these are the electors of the Electoral College. But since they are bound to vote like the states vote, the nominal selectors and the real selectors are pretty closely aligned.
- Winning coalition (essentials)
It’s a subset of the real selector, and these are the people whose support is essential for the leader to remain in power.
They are the ones with the power to overthrow their boss.
It includes the people responsible for actual policies, very senior civil servants, the highest army generals, and a handful of members of the court for kings.
In democracies such as the US the winning coalition is much larger than in dictatorships, and it consists of the minimum number of voters who give the edge to one candidate over another.
Based on the dimensions of political power, this is the definition of dictatorship:
Dictatorship is a government based on a particularly small group of essentials, drawn from a very large group of interchangeables, and usually a small batch of influentials.
And this is the definition of democracy:
Democracy is a government based on a very large number of essentials and a very large number of interchangeables, with the influential group being almost as big as the interchangeables
While, in monarchies or military juntas, the number of interchangeables, influentials, and essentials, is small.
Because dictatorships depend on a small number of essential supporters, they are a battle for private rewards.
And because democracies depend on large swaths of voters, they are a battleground for policy ideas.
My note: this was a generalization of course, see Trump’s win with few good policy ideas and read “Win Bigly“.
- Keep the winning coalition as small as possible: you will need fewer people to stay in power, have higher control over them, and you will save on graft (my note: however, a smaller number also means easier for them to organize a putsch)
- Keep the nominal selectors as large as possible: so that you can easily replace troublemakers among the influentials and essentials, and send the essentials a message that they better behave
- Control the flow of revenues
- Pay your essentials just enough to keep them loyal: and keep them away from the source of money
- Don’t take money out of the essentials’ pockets to make the people better: dictators depend on essentials, not on average citizens
Leaders Spend On Those They Need to Stay In Power
To understand politics, you need to understand this:
Leaders spend on those whose support their hold on power.
This is why in democracies, where leaders need the support of all the voters, leaders spend a lot of resources for the good of the overall population.
Buying votes is not effective in democracies, so leaders seek to keep the loyalty of the voters with good and effective policies and with public spending that supports large infrastructure projects.
Democratic leaders also want a good and strong economy, because a poor economy means unhappy people and unhappy people mean no votes.
But in dictatorships, dictators need the support and loyalty of the essential cronies, not of the large population.
And so, they spend on the essentials first and foremost (even before spending on themselves).
Their political survival does not depend on the nominal selectors, who sometimes don’t even vote, so the population always gets the short end of the stick, the leftovers -if there is anything left-.
And that’s why the essential cronies often grow super-rich even while their countries fare poorly.
Where’s The Money?
Leaders need to keep their backers happy.
And to do so, their main worry is where to find the money to keep the machine oiled.
Democracies, on average, keep taxes lower because they need to emphasize the public good.
Dictatorships instead tend to seek to extract as much as possible from those at the bottom (who don’t really matter), to enrich those at the top (whose loyalty matters to the leader). The goal of dictators is to tax as much as possible without getting to the point of taxing so much that people stop working and revolt.
Getting to Power: Here’s How You Do It
A dictator needs to do only three things to get into power:
- Remove the incumbent
The incumbent always has an advantage if he is doing his job well. The coalition of supporters knows they will be getting their beak wet, while they cannot be assured you will be doing the same.
There are three ways of removing the incumbent:
- Wait for him to die
- Strike at the right opportunity (old leader, a faux pas, a financial crisis)
- Make an offer and/or convince the current supporters to switch sides
- Overthrow the government through internal revolution or war with a foreign power.
Mortality is a great time to get into power.
Even slightly before death, leaders are usually at their weakest. Not because they’re old or necessarily physically weak, but because the supporters know the leaders will not be long in a position to enrich and support them. And so they look at possible future alternatives.
For leaders, it’s always a good idea to designate a successor to avoid these issues, and best of all if it’s a family member.
Supporters are fearful of supporting a new entry though because they know what they’re leaving, but they don’t know what they’re getting.
And it’s common for supporters to be removed, discarded, or executed once the leader reaches power.
That’s why allaying supporters’ fears is a crucial step in getting into power.
Keep in mind internal revolution needs a lack of internal support from the military to succeed, so they are only
- Seize the apparatus of government (treasury first and foremost)
Most of all, you must get your hands on the treasury.
Ideally, you will also be able to capture the former dictator and retrieve some of his war chests.
- Form a coalition of supporters to sustain him in power
While a long-standing dictator is safer in place than a democratic leader, the first period as a dictator is risky.
Make sure you lock in a loyal coalition or someone else will be looking to overthrow you soon enough.
As a rule of thumb, keeping the same coalition of supporters as your predecessor is a risky move as it may contain true loyalists to your predecessor.
And keeping the same coalition that carried you to power is also risky. They all feel too powerful after having topped the previous leader. And they all feel their work should be rewarded with more than just an underlying position.
Many successful dictators get rid of the original coalition of supporters and replace them with new ones.
Dictators Are Held In Power by Military
The military is always a key to prop up the dictator.
Internal revolutions only succeed when the internal supporters defect the leader and leave the protesters free to overthrow the government.
Dictators who know the game and who still have the loyalty of their supporters will squash rebellions quickly and brutally to send a strong message that it’s not worth it to demonstrate.
Say the authors:
Consider a room of 100 people.
Anyone could take complete control if he has 5 supporters with automatic weapons.
And he will remain in control as long as the gunmen support him. There needs to be nothing special about the dictator except for the fact that he secure the guns first.
Companies Follow The Same Rules
The authors make the point that the same rules and dynamics apply to public companies.
The authors show that, albeit, the CEO should respond to the board, it’s common for newly appointed CEOs to shake up the board after they come to power.
Doing a good job is not enough to ensure political survival, and that is true for politics as much for business.
As long as bosses are beholden to a few boards of directors, they will keep them happy with fat bonuses in exchange for continued backing.
The solution is only to make CEOs more accountable to the millions of shareholders.
Reforming corporations is easier than reforming governments, the authors say: corporations don’t have armies.
My Note: I’m not convinced by that.
In a way, not relying on hard power makes it easier for corporations to defend. There is no real enemy fight, just an invisible enemy who buys influence with money.
Stop Foreign Aid: It Doesn’t Help, & Might Actually Cause Harm
The easiest way to incentivize a dictator to liberalize its economy and provide more freedom is to force it to rely on tax revenues to generate funds.
If a dictator can rely on resources or on foreign aid and funds, then they will have no incentives to improve the lives of the average citizens.
Democracies should not send any aid to dictators, should not lend them any money, and should not forgive any debt.
Dictators who get a debt discount start re-borrowing recklessly right away.
Furthermore, the authors dedicate a whole chapter to foreign aid as a tool for policymaking, and not true help.
Aid does a little bit of good in the world and vastly more harm
Democratization does not require benevolence. It requires economic needs by the dictator. And foreign aid helps alleviate the economic pain but only alleviates it for the leaders, not for the people.
Dictator’s Dilemma: Liberty & Tax Revenues or Liberty & Risk Revolt?
Dictators can also gain-granting political freedom, allow technology, and provide good instruction.
Freedoms help the population work more effectively, which in turn produces more tax revenues for the dictators.
However, freedoms also pose a threat as they make it easier for the population to organize revolts.
Galvanized by the increasing freedoms, the population might also feel like they can now demand more and more.
The authors say that successful dictators provide just enough freedom to keep the population producing enough for them to pay their supporters.
What About Wise, Well-Intentioned Leaders?
The author says that the world has produced wise and well-intentioned leaders and dictators.
But there haven’t been many of them, so you better not bank on it.
They also make the point that “well-intentioned” often does not mean “good leaders”.
Some of the worst leaders have been those who thought they were going to do great things for their population (see failed communist experiments as in Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Tsedong).
If Power Corrupts, Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
That maxim is generally true, but it doesn’t capture the causality.
Power leads to corruption and corruption leads to power.
Small coalition governments need corruption because of the very nature with which they operate.
The authors say that the most corrupt regimes are always led by a small coalition.
Laws against corruption don’t work in oppressive regimes and only provide the leader with more tools to prosecute his adversaries (think of the trumped-up charges of corruption in China or Russia).
Some leaders indeed allow corruption while still recording corruption in case they need to get rid of someone.
The best way to deal with corruption is to increase the coalition size.
So the authors say that to decrease corruption in FIFA and in the Olympic committee is necessary to increase the number of people with voting rights in those institutions.
Dictators Don’t Care Much About Wars, Democrats Do
Dictators have two uses for the military:
- Protecting the country against external threats
- Protecting themselves against internal threats
And they usually care more about the second than the first.
As long as the war abroad does not threaten their position, dictators get into wars more easily than democrats do because they care nearly as much if the citizens at home are not happy with the war.
For democrats instead wars are costly.
Soldiers dying reflects terribly on democratic leaders, so Democrats only get into wars that they can win quickly, and they tend to spend much more on technology.
Why spend more on technology?
Because citizens’ lives matter if the Democrats are to stay in power.
For despots instead, soldiers are expendable.
Despots Follow Sun-Tzu, Democrats Not: Here’s Why
Sun-Tzu advice in “The Art of War” works for despots.
Sun-Tzu recommends stopping the campaign if it’s costing too much and it’s drawing out for too long.
Instead, democrats don’t want to quit the war because that would make it seem like an unnecessary war that they lost. And that would cost them office because a war loss almost always costs them office. Unless they get beaten out of office by the opponent’s army, despots don’t have that problem.
Sun-Tzu emphasizes the importance of spoils to motivate soldiers, while democracies prefer fighting when it serves the citizens, or it would be impossible to sell the effort -and deaths- at home.
Bad behavior is more often than not, good politics
More Realpolitik Wisdom
- Montesquieu didn’t really understand politics and human nature. Machiavelli had a better grasp of human nature, but we can do better today by looking at more data
- Do it, don’t say it: Never say you are going to make a purge of your essentials: do it without saying. If you announce, that you are inviting internal rebellions
- In democracies, austerity does not sell well. Especially after austerity has been going on for years (see Churchill after WWII)
- Make friends: CEO’s longevity is tied to maintaining close personal ties with the members of the board
- Competent ministers or board members can be a risk for dictators as potential rivals (see “The 48 Laws of Power“, law #1 of power: never outshine the master). The only trait that matters for dictators is loyalty
- Members of small coalitions live well, but in fear: make the coalition bigger and their benefits get diluted, make it smaller and they might lose their job
- Rigged elections help dictators: Strong leaders keep the supporters off-balance. This is why there are rigged elections in tyrannical states: leaders send the message that supporters can be replaced
- Votes are sold in blocks in democracies: Many democracies have independent voters in theory but not in practice. Often votes are sold as “blocks” by their leaders (ie.: union bosses, religious leaders, or senators). And often these leaders sell the votes for a kickback
- Tax loopholes serve the backers: Dictators tax on average more heavily than democrats, but both make complicated rules and exceptions to favor their backers
- It’s risky to be rich in autocracies (the richest Russian and Chinese individuals were both in prison)
- Don’t lend to dictators: both democrats and, even more, dictators. The problem of repayment will be borne by the next leader… Or there is always the possibility of default and begging for debt relief. It’s not a question of financial illiteracy
- Economic growth does not guarantee political improvement
- Small coalition regimes run their economies into the ground through inefficiencies designed to benefit the leader and the essentials
- Ruthlessness is inherent to dictatorships: The authors say that dictators must be ruthless. If people know he’s unprepared to be ruthless when needed, he might not last long in power
- There is always a principled way to mask one’s true intentions. The US promotes democracy when it backs the rebels and it supports stability when it supports governments
If you are interested in more, I recommend these articles with examples:
And of course, in the face of selfish politicians, it might be a good idea to become a more individualistic player yourself.
Dictators’ Handbook Quotes
On expedience VS doing what’s good:
Coming to power is never about doing the right thing. It’s always about doing what’s expedient.
On keeping the army loyal:
Mugabe succeeds because he understands it does not matter what happens to the people as long as he pays the army
On the ultimate objective:
In the end, ruling is the objective, not ruling well
On loyalty and competence:
It is better to have loyal incompetents than competent rivals
On rigged elections:
The is no better thing than a rigged election. As long as you are the one rigging it
On leaders and taxes:
Leaders on the other hand are rather fond of taxes. As long as they don’t have to pay them
Being a dictator is a terrific job, but it can also be terribly stressful. Especially if money is in short supply. Taxes are a great antidote to stress
On the dangers of wealth in autocracies:
In autocracies it is unwise to be rich unless the government made you rich
On health care and infant mortality in autocracies:
Even in autocracies with reported good health care system, infant mortality is high.
Not because dictators don’t like babies just like the next guy, but they recognize that helping babies doesn’t help them
On helping the people instead of the coalition:
Caesar made the mistake of trying to help the people by using a portion of the coalition’s money.
It is fine for leaders to enrich the people, but it has to come from the leader’s pocket, not from his coalition of supporters.
Too much greed and too many good deeds are equally punishable.
On idealism VS reality, the authors make a good case that everyone wants to help… But with government money, not their own.
And then they say:
Despite the idealistic expressions of some, all too many of us prefer cheap oil to real change in West Africa or the Middle East
And, finally, one of my favorites underlining that appeals to ideological principles are often suspicious:
Men always have two reasons for doing things.
The good reason, and the real reason.
Let me preface this section:
Not only do I love the book, but I also think that it is overall mostly right.
But a few notes still need to be added and potentially discussed:
#1. Does the US really act like a democracy for the citizens or are some democracies more masked autocracies?
The authors say that democracies tend to act for the citizens for the simple fact that they need the citizens’ support.
Yet, Martin Gilen’s study over 21 years shows that policy outcomes strongly reflect the will of high-income citizens.
This is not how democracies should work as for de Mesquita and Smith’s model.
When it comes to actual policy, the US seems to act more like a small coalition government. This makes sense if you think that politicians heavily depend on donors to run their campaigns.
It would make sense then that the higher the wealth inequality (gini coefficient) and the more expensive the political campaigns, the less democracies act in favor of the average citizens and the more they act like small-coalition governments (ie.: autocracies).
This does not invalidate “The Dictator’s Handbook” theories, but it increases a bit the complexity of the analysis, it adds some exceptions, and blurs the lines between “democracies on paper” and “true democracies”.
True democracies then would require politicians to be less dependent on powerful and wealthy citizens and, possibly, present less income disparity just to make sure that a few cannot buy policies.
#2. Politics as self-interest only is a limited view and fails to truly understand and appreciate the hues of human nature
Since political analysis based on self-interest is sorely lacking, we need more books like “The Dictator’s Handbook“.
Yet, I believe that limiting ourselves to self-interest only leads to poor understanding and not to a “theory of everything” as the authors’ students call it.
Not considering that people do have pro-social tendencies is a failure to fully understand and appreciate human nature (for more on pro-social innate human tendencies see Ridley, 1996).
It might as well be the case that dictators are self-selecting for selfish dictators’ jobs while democrats attract a broader spectrum of individuals, including individuals who also want to do some good.
As an example, see the following:
#3. Leaders do have states’ interests in mind (even if for selfish reasons)
The author says that it’s never about countries but about single leaders.
Leaders don’t care about their countries, they care about themselves, they say.
Talking about Russians’ ambitions to restore Russia as a great power makes no sense, they say, because it’s not about “Russia”, but all about the leader.
Yet, this statement in my opinion is wrong from a social-psychology point of view.
People do identify with their ingroup and with their countries. And leaders are people.
In social-psychology it’s called the “Social Identity Theory“, and in my guide on how to be a great leader I say that all leaders should encourage their group members to identify with their group for the simple reason that most people already have an inborn tendency to do so.
Putin, like many other autocrats, most likely does want his country to be a great power.
One because it gives him more power, second because it reflects greatly on him, third because that would make him well-liked and everyone wants to be revered and, finally, because he likely is at least a bit nationalistic and he identifies with Russia.
#4. Biased towards democracy: is democracy really always the best form of government? How about the democratic tragedy of commons?
The authors seem to reach this conclusion:
Big coalition governments where nominal selectors are also the true selectors, such as democracies, are the best systems to ensure good policy and development
And, in many ways, that’s absolutely true.
Especially if you compare it to your average dictatorship.
Yet, I can see many ways in which democracy, having difficulty with good but unpopular actions, cannot manage to avoid disasters.
The authors themselves admit that austerity does not win votes in democracies. Yet austerity is exactly what you need sometimes.
I think of Greece or of Italy, a country with great potential, but which cannot manage to get out of recession and decrease its debt.
If Italy were a dictatorship, the dictators could introduce the forceful, unpopular in the short-term but good in the long-term policies that the country needs.
How does democracy cope, for example, with overpopulation if nobody wants a policy for one single child max?
How does democracy cope with environmental preservation if citizens all prefer to pollute?
Democracies can easily fall victim to the tragedy of commons whereas an “enlightened despot” can steer a country towards what’s truly best for them in the long run.
That is exactly what Xiaoping did, and the authors themselves listed him as one of the “despotic heroes”
Xiaoping probably performed for China much better than any democracy could have ever done.
The authors say that good despots can exist, but they end up pursuing the wrong policies because they lack people’s feedback.
However, that is not a convincing argument to me.
Modern despots can have access to plenty of data that average citizens don’t even bother to check before voting.
- What about hated democrats and beloved dictators?
“The Dictator’s Handbook” does not expressly say that dictators are disliked.
But the feeling is that dictators are disliked by the population, while democrats are more liked and popular.
Yet I think of Vladimir Putin, a rather liked and loved autocrat in Russia. Or even Pope Francis in the Vatican/Catholic Church.
And in most Western democracies the approval ratings of politicians are abysmally low.
This again seems, in my opinion, to fly against the face of the “terrible despots” concept and lend more credibility to the notion that “enlightened despots” are sometimes better than weak democracies.
#5. Unsure of some data, indexes, and evidence
There were a few instances where I wasn’t sure about the underlying data or about the indicators used to corroborate the theory.
- Is the “resource curse” true?
The author says that “resource-rich” countries systematically underperform resource-poor countries.
The author says that “nations with readily extractable resources systematically underperform nations without such resources”.
But it that true?
A few notable exceptions spring to mind, including the US, Canada, and Norway.
There has been considerable criticism of the “resource curse” theory, and I am personally not too convinced of how real that curse is.
I think it might be true with dictators, but it’s not necessarily true with democracies.
The authors should have pointed that out a bit more clearly maybe.
- Do democracies really tax less?
The authors say that democracies, on average, tax at a lower rate.
They also say they have another book up with all the data and I am eventually going to read that, too.
Still, I would have liked them to at least mention they have data to back their assertions.
There are plenty of exceptions that make me at least doubt that assertion. Think of the Scandinavian countries and many more European countries. But also think of autocratic regimes with very low taxation or, in some cases, even true tax havens (ie.: Dubai).
- “Straight road index”
Measuring how straight the roads are to tease out how despotic a government is seemed a bit too convoluted to me.
Not necessarily untrue, but it might be a bit of a stretch. Especially if you don’t take into account geography, population density, and wealth.
- Earthquake index
The authors use earthquake victims as a proxy for the level of government’s care for its citizens.
That, in turn, would help identify dictatorships (don’t care at all) VS democracies (care).
It makes sense on paper.
Yet, earthquakes are so rare that even democratic leaders should theoretically not care much about protecting their citizens from events that will happen who knows when.
But if we only think in terms of self-interest, democrats also have a strong short-term bias. The authors mention the earthquake in Italy for example, but I know well about it because it was exactly in my region, and the authors failed to realize that the largest amount of victims came exactly from government buildings that collapsed.
So albeit I agree with the overarching idea, I’m not too sure about this “earthquake index”.
And since self-interest in my opinion does not explain big present investments for uncertain future rewards, I must wonder again: maybe self-interest is not the only way to understand politics?
For average books, I listen at 2x speed, once.
Good books, I listen to 2x speed, twice.
Great books, I listen several times and slow down the speed, too.
The Dictator’s Handbook belongs to the third category. I listened to this “The Dictator’s Handbook” probably 4 or 5 times.
A true eye-opening masterpiece of realpolitik and human nature. For people interested in politics, it makes a great combination with Don’t Think of An Elephant, and for anyone interested in power, politics, and human nature, an absolute must-read.