The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 352 pages.
In their new book, The Dictator's Handbook, New York University professors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argue that to understand how dictators monopolize power, we need to look no further than our local city council.
The book begins in Bell, California, where a scandal erupted in 2010 over the city manager's $787,000 annual salary. For seventeen years, Robert Rizzo swindled thousands of dollars from his constituents, a quarter of whom lived below the poverty line. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith discovered that Rizzo behaved as all politicians do, whether democrats or dictators, securing his hold on power by reducing the size of his electorate. Rizzo manipulated the timing of elections to ensure low voter turnout and held special elections on policies that would give the city council greater control of the budget. In a conversation with the Journal's Rebecca Chao, Smith explained how dictators act in very much the same way, and discussed how the book's unconventional and pessimistic take on governance provides us with a more informative method for classifying regimes.
Journal of International Affairs: The dictators discussed in your book range widely in their methods, from Liberia's brutal Samuel Doe to Singapore's relatively benevolent Lee Kuan Yew. How does your theory account for such variety? Does it explain how these dictators rule and stay in power in such different ways?
Alastair Smith: I will answer your question in two parts. First, I want to think about how we classify regimes. The classic idea is that there is democracy and there is everything else. And of course among democracies we can argue over the definition because they vary massively. Autocracies also vary widely, from elected monarchies to military juntas, and even within these broad categories there is huge variation regarding who gets to elect the king in an elected monarchy or in a rigged elected autocracy. For example, we tend to think that Hugo Chavez has the elections rigged in Venezuela, but he is still beholden to hundreds …