Book Review: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011)

The rise in populism over the last decade has birthed a bumper crop in books on dictators, with contributions from Frank Dikötter, Daniel Kalder, and others. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s entry is a quality addition. The reigning classic in the genre, though, is Gordon Tullock’s early work on the public choice theory of autocracies, which is collected in The Social Dilemma, which is volume 8 of his Selected Works.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith work from the discipline of foreign policy, rather than from economics, law, or political science. They belong to the realist school, which is in some ways the current incarnation of Machiavellianism and realpolitik. Foreign policy realists have quite a bit in common with public choice economics—politicians respond to incentives, and tend to behave in self-interested ways.

The Dictator’s Handbook is a popular-level distillation of a larger theory of autocratic behavior Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have explored in numerous academic works. Dictators often show strong ideologies in public. These are often various forms of socialism, nationalism, theocracy, or some mixture of the three. In private, dictators may sincerely believe in their ideology. And it will influence their policy choices. But, just as public choice theory argues, when self-preservation conflicts with the ideology, self-preservation nearly always wins.

This self-preservation instinct explains why so many dictatorships look so similar. Military support is essential to maintaining power, which is why dictatorships often have lavish and showy military budgets, even if they do not have any intention of going to war. Well-paid soldiers are less likely to rebel, especially in poor countries where other career opportunities are limited. A highly visible military projects power, which scares off rebels inside and outside of the palace. And a well-fed and well-feted general is less likely to pursue his own coup.

Gaudy personal styles and decorating styles are another common dictator trait; nearly every dictator’s residence, whether in Belarus or Libya, is almost indistinguishable from Donald Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower. It’s another way of projecting power, if not taste.

A dictator’s inner circle is often unstable. This is both caused and countered with a culture of excessive honorifics and ostentatious wealth—with obvious gradations to signify an official’s place in the hierarchy. Taking privileges away is a sign that someone is falling out of favor.

Dictators rarely have a formal succession plan. This is another reason why they usually have a garish, privileged court culture. Dictatorships are typically in very poor countries. Officials who enjoy a Western standard of living—courtesy of the dictator, they are constantly reminded—are less likely to overthrow the dictator. Moreover, when aspirants are competing against each other, they are not competing against the dictator himself. When generals have a comically large number of lapel pins on their epaulet-laden uniforms, there is a reason for it. They are status signals in their competitive game against each other. They are not just marks of favor from the leader.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith run a risk of stereotyping by pointing out how alike so many dictators are. But they are well aware that each country, and each dictator, has their own situation and cultural factors in play. At the same time, their commonalities show a kind of convergent evolution: successful dictators stay in power because they have discovered “best practices” that apply widely. Dictators that did not adopt these practices did not stay in power, so the only remaining examples have strong militaries, garish styles, elaborate court cultures, no formal succession plan, and so on. While the world as a whole has been tending towards democratic liberalism since the end of World War II, there are still plenty of illiberal countries. It is important to understand them if their people are to become free.

It is also important to know warning signs when we see them, as the tragedy of President Trump’s late-term coup attempt shows.

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