The Dictator’s Handbook

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has decided to popularize his ideas with a new book, The Dictator’s Handbook, co-written with Alastair Smith. Michael Moynihan reviews the “lucidly written, shrewdly argued meditation on how democrats and dictators preserve political authority”:

So how is it that undemocratic leaders — who exploit, imprison and brutalize their subjects — frequently maintain power for far longer periods than their democratic counterparts? Autocrats, the authors argue, need only reward only a small class of loyalists — the army, judiciary, an inner circle of advisers — who will reliably suppress opposition. While democrats likewise dispense rewards — sweetheart contracts, farm subsidies, welfare payments — they are constrained by a system of government that requires the loyalty of fickle voters. This ensures that if a leader accumulates wealth and power in a few hands, his job security weakens.

In a style reminiscent of “Freakonomics,” Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith present dozens of clever examples of how researchers identify and compare graft in autocracies and democracies. The authors demonstrate, for instance, that roads connecting airports to major cities in democracies tend to be circuitous, zigging and zagging across the landscape, while in autocracies they tend to be fairly straight. Why? Because autocrats are less likely to respect the property rights of those inhibiting their public-works plans. Powerless peasants, after all, are hardly in a position to threaten government authority. In a democracy, a large-scale use of eminent domain would be wildly unpopular, probably resulting in the ruling party’s replacement.

One might presume that a badly handled natural disaster greatly shortens time in office. It does — but only in democracies. Dictators, the authors argue, should view mass death by natural disaster as good politics. This is a jarring assertion, but consider that the higher the death toll in a democracy, the less likely an incompetent government is to be re-elected. The higher the death toll in an autocracy, however, the more money leaders can extract from foreign governments and aid agencies, money that is then used to strengthen the position of government loyalists.

And how about those well-meaning debt-forgiveness campaigners? While it might seem intuitively true that clearing balance sheets helps poor countries, “The Dictator’s Handbook” suggests that pardoning debt obligations tends to entrench authoritarian leaders and retard the development of democracy. With a wounded economy, autocrats find it more difficult to bribe their small group of key supporters.

The most fascinating chapter in “The Dictator’s Handbook” concerns the rewards that governments provide other governments. The authors make the obvious, but nevertheless controversial, argument that almost all aid money is dispersed not to alleviate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence. There also exists an important political calculus for autocratic aid recipients, who are often willing to make unpopular domestic political decisions provided that the benefits are ample enough to satiate those loyalists who sustain their power.

Consider that democratic Turkey refused the Bush administration’s request to use its military bases for an attack on Iraq. After long and labored negotiations, Ankara calculated that the offered financial reward wasn’t enough to risk alienating its political reputation with its own people, who can simply retaliate at the ballot box. Instead, American planes flew from autocratic Kuwait, a government with a very small power base — and one that needn’t answer to an angry electorate.

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