Category Archives: International

A Better Approach to Tariff Diplomacy

In diplomacy, carrots tend to be more effective than sticks. Yet, two consecutive administrations have used tariff threats to try to achieve their objectives. Former President Trump did four rounds of back-and-forth tariffs against China, and President Biden is trying it now to counter proposed digital taxes from six mostly European countries. The strategy has yet to work. Over at National Review, I take a look at a better way: Rather than threaten new tariffs, promise to remove old ones as a sweetener.

Why not scrap Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs in exchange for scrapping proposed digital taxes? Carrots are often more effective than sticks.

The metal tariffs will also likely be an issue at this week’s United States–European Union summit. European leaders want a December 1 deadline for ending them. In return, they would end the retaliatory tariffs they immposed in response. A digital tax moratorium should also be part of the deal.

Here at home, the metal tariffs are slowing the COVID recovery by raising auto and housing prices, which were already at record highs. They are also causing needless diplomatic frictions with allies. Removing them is a win-win.

Even if the diplomatic goal fails—there are no guarantees in foreign policy—the lower tariff would still help the U.S. economy. Read the whole thing here.

Boeing-Airbus Dispute Remains Unsolved: Tariffs Gone, Subsidies Stay

The European Union and the United States eagerly announced today that they had resolved their 17-year dispute over aerospace subsidies. They exaggerate their claims. It is good news that both sides are standing down on tariffs for at least five years. But the reason for the dispute in the first place was over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus. Those will remain in place.

The tariffs that each side levied on the other had the explicit goal of stopping the subsidies. The World Trade Organization even allowed tariffs on each side to go through, on the theory that these wrongs were intended to make a right. But as usually happens with tariff-based diplomacy, it didn’t work. As a result, industries from cheese and wine to motorcycles had to deal with tariffs for years over a dispute they had nothing to do with. And now that the tariffs are going away, they didn’t accomplish their actual goal.

Why are the U.S. and EU suddenly OK with each other’s aerospace subsidies? China. China’s aerospace sector is heavily subsidized. Both Europe and the U.S. feel it is better to work together to counter China than to squabble with each other.

Their fears may be exaggerated, though. Industries that rely on subsidies and are essentially government enterprises tend not to be very competitive in the long run. Yes, China’s aerospace market share is increasing, but subsidized and protected industries grow soft. Their corporate cultures are closer to the Post Office than to Silicon Valley startups. So are their rates of innovation.

Still, for the sake of argument, assume that China’s model of government subsidies and control does work in the long run, and Boeing and Airbus become also-rans. Relatively poor Chinese taxpayers would essentially foot the bill for relatively wealthy American and European airlines and travelers. This is income redistribution in reverse. Even this unlikely best-case scenario is unwise policy from China’s perspective.

Most of the 20th century’s economic history showed that state planning doesn’t work. Even if Boeing, Airbus, and their captured politicians think the short term looks scary, there is no reason for this current instance of state capitalism to be any different in the long run.

This week’s decision to remove the Boeing-Airbus dispute tariffs was a wise one. But if the goal is to make the aerospace industry more competitive, President Biden and European leaders did not do that. They need to end subsidies that make companies soft and dependent. The best way to counter China’s state-run enterprises is not with our version of the same thing. It is with actual enterprises.

Some of my earlier commentary on the Boeing-Airbus dispute is here. My papers on the Export-Import Bank, whose billions of dollars in annual assistance to Boeing played a starring role in the dispute, are here and here.

Science, Openness, and Peace

From pp. 352-353 of Richard Holmes’ immensely enjoyable history of science in the early Romantic period, The Age of Wonder:

On 2 November [the British chemist and forefather of anesthesia Humphry] Davy received the Prix Napoléon (worth 6,000 livres) from the Institut de France in Paris. He knew that accepting the award might be unpopular in wartime England, but followed [British scientist and explorer Joseph] Banks’ line at the Royal Society that science should be above national conflicts. He told [tanner and essayist] Tom Poole: ‘Some people say I ought not to accept this prize; and there have been foolish paragraphs in the papers to that effect; but if the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. That would, indeed, be a civil war of the worst description: we should rather, through the instrumentality of men of science, soften the asperities of national hostility.’

Montesquieu’s doux commerce thesis is that trade promotes peace and prevents war. Here, Humphry Davy, who is not as famous as he should be in the history of science, makes the same argument for science. When ideas and discoveries cross borders, it is less likely that soldiers will. This is an important point in today’s political climate of growing nationalism.

On the Radio: Apple’s EU Antitrust Case

On Friday, I discussed the EU’s new antitrust case against Apple on the Lars Larson show. Audio is here.

EU Antitrust Action Against Apple – Bad for Trade, Bad for Consumers

This press release was originally posted at cei.org.

The EU Commission declared today that “Apple has a monopoly” in the distribution of music streaming apps to owners of Apple devices, the upshot of an antitrust investigation launched last year against the App Store and triggered by a complaint filed by streaming music company Spotify. CEI experts criticized the EU for what will be a poor outcome for consumers, entrepreneurs, and trade.

Ryan Young, CEI trade policy expert

“Antitrust policy can be a form of trade protectionism, similar to tariffs. Europe’s tech industry has long lagged behind America’s, largely due to the EU’s stifling regulatory climate. The EU could boost its tech industry by reforming its own bad policies, such as its corporate subsidies and overly risk-averse regulatory approach. Instead, it is trying to boost Europe-based Spotify by taking U.S.-based Apple to court.

“It is better to build up than to tear down. Europe has plenty of talented innovators and plenty of capital to fund them. The EU would better help consumers and businesses by letting its entrepreneurs innovate, rather than suing foreign competitors.”

Jessica Melugin, CEI technology policy expert

“Apple’s fees are in line with or less than the global industry standard, and Spotify has benefited greatly from the App Store’s distribution network. Spotify chose to offer its product through the App Store and now is crying to regulators in the EU and US for them to intervene and change the rules. Apparently, corporate cronyism is at home on both continents.”

Related analysis: Terrible Tech 2.0: The Most Burdensome, Anti-Consumer Technology Policy Proposals in Washington

U.S. Trade Representative Tai Should Rethink Keeping China Tariffs in Place

Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Katherine Tai, the new United States Trade Representative. She has a lot of work ahead of her to undo the damage from the Trump administration’s protectionist turn. But she made two disappointing remarks about the approach she plans to take on the tariffs Trump placed on Chinese goods worth $377 billion per year. These can be undone at any time by either Congress or the stroke of President Biden’s pen.

First, as she told the Journal:

“I have heard people say, ‘Please just take these tariffs off,’” Ms. Tai said. But “yanking off tariffs,” she warned, could harm the economy unless the change is “communicated in a way so that the actors in the economy can make adjustments.”

The top trade policy priority right now should be to prevent normalizing President Trump’s trade policies. He doubled U.S. tariffs in one term, in unpredictable fashion. That was the radical change that made planning difficult. Restoring tariffs to where they already were for a long time would be far better for giving businesses something to plan around.

Tai has this argument backwards, and with poor timing. Businesses are struggling to recover from the COVID slowdown. Lowering tariffs would provide an economic stimulus that requires no new spending. Economics aside, the politics of undoing Trump’s China tariff are also positive. It sends a message of moving on, and a responsiveness to consumers, businesses, and economic realities.

Her second disappointing remark is about leverage:

The negotiator also cited tactical reasons for her reluctance.

“No negotiator walks away from leverage, right?” she said.

Tariffs do not give the U.S. any leverage, so there is none to walk away from by repealing them. Their purpose was to get China to reform its unfair trade policies, which is the right goal, but tariffs never had a chance of achieving it. The first round sparked no reforms, only retaliation. Trump enacted a second round and got the same result. On it went, and now three quarters of China’s exports to America are tariffed, there are retaliatory tariffs on the same proportion of American exports to China, and Beijing has not made a single notable reform.

True, withdrawing tariffs would also fail to convince China to reform, but that does not justify keeping them or trying to use them as leverage. Tariffs simply do not work with Beijing as a negotiating tactic. They are like trying to use a hammer as scissors. They are the wrong tool for the job. When a strategy fails, the right thing to do is admit it and try something else.

There is a lot the U.S. can do to help along Chinese reform. We now know tariffs are not part of the list. There is also no silver bullet. Pundits and voters hate hearing this, but it’s true. Pretending that there is a silver bullet in order to appeal to them will do no good. Change in China must ultimately come from within, but there is still a lot the U.S. can do to help. It takes a multifaceted strategy that is more subtle than tariffs, and gets less media coverage than summits or negotiations.

Continued economic, intellectual, and cultural engagement with China will let ordinary Chinese people see how much richer and freer liberal policies are. Walls don’t work, but bridges, windows, and conversations do. This is a slow, bottom-up process that is difficult to measure with statistics.

But just as blue jeans, underground rock music, and American movies helped to win the Cold War, today’s equivalents can help ordinary Chinese people see the connection between liberalism, markets, and prosperity—and work toward moving their own country in that direction.

That is a long-term process, but there is important work right now that Tai, President Biden, and Congress can do to help get it started. First on the agenda should be getting rid of the Trump tariffs. Neither Tai’s “companies will have problems adjusting” argument nor her leverage argument hold water. The right thing to do is to rip off the Trump-era band-aid and move on to policies that at least have a chance of working. Congress or President Biden could do this tomorrow.

Repealing these bad policies is not enough, though. The larger system that makes tariff abuse possible needs reform. As we recommend in the new CEI Agenda for Congress, this would mean repealing Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 and Sections 201 and 301 of the Trade Act of 1974.

These provisions allow the president to enact tariffs without congressional approval. The China tariffs were enacted under Section 301. The steel and aluminum tariffs—against allies we’ll need as counterweights to China—were enacted under Section 232, allegedly for national security reasons. It’s time for them to go, and Tai can play a role in making that happen.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an important diplomatic counterweight to China; the U.S. should rejoin it. Tai and President Biden should work to rebuild the World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution process, where the U.S. wins more than 85 percent of the cases it brings. Renewing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) would speed up negotiations for a trade agreement with China, if the president chooses that route. At the very least, TPA would help with upcoming agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union, whose help we’ll need to counter Chinese influence. Tai can play an important role working with Congress to renew TPA before it expires in July.

This is a somewhat slow period in China-U.S. relations. The tariff back-and-forth is likely over with Trump out of office. The Phase One agreement, which was unrealistic to begin with, was made completely unworkable by COVID, and is essentially dead.

But over the medium to long term, working to liberalize China will be a top economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian priority for the United States. Tai stumbled out of the gates in her first interview, but it’s a long race. With the right policies, she can help make historic positive changes that will benefit both the American and Chinese people.

For more on those policies, see the trade chapter in CEI’s new Agenda for Congress, my paper on COVID-related trade reforms, and Iain Murray’s and my paper “Traders of the Lost Ark.”

Book Review: Open: The Story of Human Progress by Johan Norberg

On March 25, 2021 at noon ET, CEI is hosting a double book forum featuring Johan Norberg, the 2019 winner of CEI’s Julian L. Simon Memorial Award, and Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace cofounder and author of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom. Register here, where video of the event will also be viewable afterwards.

Liberalism—in the correct sense of the word—needs fresh voices. The ideological conversation is different than it was a decade ago, and many market-liberal thinkers have not kept pace. Today’s debate is over whether society should be open or closed, not which side of the Iron Curtain was better.

This is where the Swedish economist Johan Norberg performs a valuable service. He is fighting the current battle, not the last one. His newest book, Open: The Story of Human Progress, is a superb defense of the pro-freedom side of the debate. And he defends it against the nationalists and populists who are attacking it right now.

People over a certain age on the political right tend to still use the word “socialism,” but often as a catch-all term for things they dislike. This is different from the word’s commonly understood meaning of state ownership of the means of production, belief in dialectical materialism, teleological stages of history, or any of the other things socialists actually believe in.

People under a certain age on the political left often say they favor socialism. But they, too, have given the word a new and different meaning. They typically define socialism as a more-or-less market economy with a large welfare state, as in the Nordic countries. They are also often careful to add the qualifier “democratic” as an implicit nod to what socialism’s original meaning entails.

When people give the same word different meanings, confusion reigns. When people today lob the s-bomb, they are often talking  at each other, not to each other. The real debate is elsewhere.

This tactic is great for getting people riled up, though. The heat-without-light approach has advanced the careers of people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Trump on the right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left. But it makes substantive debate difficult.

Openness and liberal institutions have generated more wealth for more people than any other socioeconomic system in history. But they are also unpopular. Norberg has some ideas on why, drawing on a mix of history, economics, and psychology. He sums up his thesis on page 6:

As I will argue, the reason that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution started in Western Europe was that this region of the world happened to be the most open, partly just out of luck. It has been repeated in every place that has gone through similar institutional changes. It is not the triumph of the West, it is the triumph of openness.

First, the history. The last two centuries have seen a mass enrichment unlike anything in human history. As economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out, people today are 30 times wealthier than our ancestors were in about 1800. Not 30 percent more, but 30-fold. As President Biden once said about a different issue, this is a big deal. Since the Great Enrichment began, life expectancies have doubled. Infant mortality is down by more than 90 percent. Famines today have political causes, not natural ones. Violence, both intentional and accidental, are sharply down across the board. A few years ago, the percentage of world population living in absolute poverty—$1.90 per day or less—fell below 10 percent for the first time ever. Almost every long-run trend is showing improvement.

This historical process is as important as the taming of fire or the invention of the wheel. This is what Norberg defends. And it needs defending, because the openness and liberal values that made it all possible are unpopular. Psychology helps to explain why.

People respond to threats more sharply than to good news. In lab experiments, people feel the sting of loss about twice as sharply as a gain of similar amount. Psychologists call this loss aversion. We evolved this trait because mother nature is a superb economist. People have only so much attention to give to things, so we have evolved ways to economize on it. When things are going well, we can leave them alone, and save our scarce attention for dealing with threats. We are hardwired to pay more attention to threats, because long ago there was a survival advantage in doing so.

This tendency is not unique to humans, and long predates us. In a way, the modern life we all enjoy runs counter to hundreds of millions of years of natural selection processes. No wonder liberals have an uphill battle!

In the last two centuries or so since the Great Enrichment began, threats have become progressively less menacing. People don’t have to worry nearly as much about famine, disease, or violence. But that same impulse still exists. Now it gets channeled differently. Socialists—actual ones—viewed capitalists as threats. Populists, from William Jennings Bryan to Josh Hawley, frame various elites as threats. Nationalists view immigrants and foreigners as threats.

Who and what people consider to be threats changes with the times. But that core psychological mechanism remains constant. Some kind of outside Other always poses a threat to the in-group, which must always be defended. This in-group can be a family, tribe, race, nation, political party, or just about anything else. People can also have multiple in-groups at the same time, and can shift seamlessly between them. A Republican and a Democrat who would be enemies in one setting might become fast friends at a baseball game if they like the same team, then go back to being enemies when the game is over.

The key point is that the in-group/out-group dynamic is in everybody’s DNA, and is where the urge to close society comes from. Norberg here draws on the political psychologist Karen Stenner’s 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic, which argues that about a third of people have an underlying authoritarian impulse in them—but it doesn’t express itself unless people feel threatened. During normal times, they are just as open and amiable as anyone else. But when they feel threatened, “they react explosively,” Norberg writes on p. 343. “They become intolerant of diversity and dissent and willing to restore unity by government control, even if it wrecks rule of law and free speech.”

Liberal institutions are powerful enough to double lifespans and increase prosperity 30-fold in a handful of generations. At the same time, they are vulnerable to attacks like this.

Prior liberal flowerings got started in societies as diverse as Ancient Greece and Song dynasty China. But none of them lasted. The general intellectual climate wasn’t open enough to openness. Plato was executed essentially for nonconformity. After Mongol invaders ended the Song dynasty, the succeeding Ming dynasty responded to the threat by destroying the world’s most advanced fleet of oceangoing ships and banning nearly all foreign contact.

That vulnerability is why the open society will always need defending, especially as its attackers change tactics every generation or two. Norberg’s defense is perfectly suited for this generation’s emerging threats. Populist and nationalist governments have come to power in recent years in countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, and elsewhere. President Trump’s trade war, immigration restrictions, race-baiting were slowing the longest economic expansion in U.S. history and causing cultural divisions even before COVID-19 hit.

Even after he cost his party the House, the Senate, and the presidency, the Republican party is continuing along a national populist trajectory. The progressive wing of the Democratic party is pushing similar policies in different packaging, on issues from international trade to technology policy. The United Kingdom’s Brexit debate, which should have been about escaping the European Union’s burdensome regulatory, agricultural, and tax policies, was instead hijacked by ugly nationalist impulses, and became divisive for all the wrong reasons. Strongman governments and nationalist political parties are springing up in places that should know better, such as Eastern Europe, which bore the brunt of both fascism and communism in the 20th century.

Norberg writes clearly and persuasively, with passion, and without anger. It is an impressive performance, and a joy to read. He has only one notable slip in 384 pages, and that is his support for a carbon tax on pages 330-331. Ironically, this comes in a section about the knowledge problem in economics. A centralized body such as Congress is unlikely to have the on-the-ground knowledge it needs to put an accurate price on carbon emissions.

Perhaps more significantly, the carbon tax suffers from public choice problems—which basically means that politicians tend to behave like politicians. A cardinal rule of politics is that policies are made and enforced by the government we have, not the government we want. Even if Congress did overcome the knowledge problem, it is unlikely that people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, or whoever succeeds them down the road, would craft a carbon tax on the merits. For Norberg, a carbon tax is “supposed to be an incentive, not a source of revenue.” This is surely not how a carbon tax would work under a real-world government.

That quibble aside, Open is one of the best books of its kind to come out in years. It is the right defense of the right values at the right time.

Norberg is not the only voice in favor of openness. Recent works by economists Virgil Storr and Ginni Choi, psychologist Joseph Henrich, and experimental economist Bart Wilson are other recent contributions. Matt RidleySteven Pinker, and Deirdre McCloskey have all been flying the flag for openness, tolerance, and dynamism for years. But just as Julian Simon was in his day, these voices of reason are too often drowned out by a chorus of doomsayers.

Markets are inherently dynamic and ever changing. No one is in charge of them, and no one directs the process. Markets work best when people are open, tolerant, and cooperative. People need to get along with people who look different, speak differently, and may live far away. It takes trusting strangers. That not natural to the human brain, which evolved to fit a hunter-gatherer world. But open markets have gotten us this far. If we let them, they can take us much farther. Whether we do or not will be this generation’s defining debate.

Proposed European Tech Regulations Will Backfire, Badly

The European Union recently proposed two major tech regulation bills aimed at America’s tech industry, the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). While American antitrust law is flawed, European competition policy is arguably more so. On purpose or not, DMA/DSA would add trade barriers in a world that already has too many. They are costly. And they won’t increase competition. In fact, they would help to lock in the big U.S. companies’ dominance.

How would they do this? They would block self-preferencing, such as Amazon promoting self-branded products in its search results, or Google and Apple giving their own apps special treatment in their app stores. Retailers and grocery stores already have been doing this for the last century or so, and those markets are highly competitive. It is no different when a company does the same thing online.

Companies would face stricter content moderation policies. If the EU says to take down certain content, companies would have a short time frame to either remove it or be fined. European companies would not face these same compliance costs, presumably giving them a leg up, though without improving their products.

Tech platforms would be liable for user-posted content, rather than the users themselves. This essentially copies President Trump’s position in the Section 230 controversy. Besides chilling speech, this would give popular services a reason to avoid the European market. It would also lock in dominant players. Facebook can afford to hire armies of content moderators, but startup competitors cannot. Repeat offenders risk fines of up to 10 percent of global revenue.

Breaking up companies is another option, though the practical politics of the EU breaking up a U.S.-based company likely make this unrealistic.

Unlike most legislation, DMA/DSA would not apply to everyone. They would only apply to “gatekeepers,” a new term defined in just such a way that it applies only to a handful of major U.S. tech companies. In practice, DMA/DSA is simple extraction from successful companies, without proof of consumer harm.

Swiss competition commissioner Henrique Schneider argues in a recent Competitive Enterprise Institute paper that, even if that EU officials understand basic economics—no sure thing—they “choose to disregard it in order to advance two political aims—protectionism and consumer welfare (as they conceive the latter).” And, as he predicted, things are getting worse.

Beyond Spotify, it is hard to even name a major European tech company. This is not for a lack of talent and good ideas in Europe. It is because of a broken regulatory culture that prefers tearing down over building up. Taking foreigners down a notch is very different from allowing homegrown entrepreneurs to build and innovate.

DMA/DSA is trade protectionism under another name. U.S.-EU trade relations are already strained because of President Trump’s misguided trade war, Europe’s equally misguided retaliation, and a long-running dispute over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus. President Biden is likely to further raise trade barriers, as my colleague Iain Murray points out. Some kind of major U.S.-EU trade agreement is likely necessary in the next few years as a diplomatic and economic counterweight against China. DMA/DSA would aggravate tensions between allies at precisely a point when they can be somewhat smoothed.

Finally, DSA/DMA wouldn’t actually take down the big American companies, but lock in their dominance. They can afford massive fines and compliance costs; smaller startups can’t. And if a smaller competitor nears the threshold of becoming a “gatekeeper,” it may decide to stay small on purpose, leaving most of the market to big incumbents. This would harm consumers, who would pay more to have fewer choices and lower-quality services.

If the DMA/DSA bills are enacted—no sure thing—it will be a long process. According to CNBC, Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s top competition policy official wants them enacted “as fast as possible,” meaning about two years. More realistically, the process will be delayed by tech company lobbying efforts and squabbles between Brussels and the EU’s 27 national governments. By then, the tech market will likely look very different.

If the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act are accurate statements of where EU regulators stand on tech policy and innovation, then Europe’s tech sector will remain second-class. Along the way EU regulators would make global trade less free, help to lock in today’s big tech companies’ dominance, and harm consumers around the world.

Book Review: Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides – The Peloponnesian War

Thucydides wrote the second volume in the unofficial trilogy of great Greek historians. He begins almost exactly where Herodotus’ Histories ends. Having defeated Persia, Athens now finds itself at war with Sparta. This time, Athens would lose. But Thucydides, who participated in the war, does not see it through to the end. No one is quite sure why. Fortunately, Xenophon would later pick up the baton and finish the war and the “trilogy” in his Hellenica.

Where Herodotus is filled with legends, exoticism, and fantastical creatures, Thucydides is more earthbound. The gods are absent, he never leaves the Pelopennese, his prose style is plain, he consciously sticks to the facts, and his organization is meticulously chronological. Each chapter covers exactly one year, and if important events and themes do not respect those boundaries, so be it. The contrast in historiography, or historical method, is as interesting as the actual history itself.

The Peloponnesian War also contains Pericles’ famous funeral oration, which is one of the heights of Greek literature. Many of the other speeches Thucydides recounts also have high literary value. He stands out in his attempt to humanize his opponents and to understand their points of view. Rather than smear Spartans with ad hominems the way many modern political writers do their opponents, Thucydides sought understanding and objectivity. He saw his task as leaving a reliable record, not making the case for his side events.

At the very least, Thucydides assumes good intentions and noble deeds among the enemy he fought and lost to. Thucydides understood that if one is going to lose, better that it be to a noble opponent than to a weak and immoral one. There are lessons here for today’s politicians as well as the crass Internet commenters who egg them on.

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.