Alastair Smith: Dictators' Race to the Bottom

Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Alastair Smith: Dictators' Race to the Bottom


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 of thousands of people because he has not rigged them as well as he could have.

There is an enormous variation of regime type, and our approach is to classify regimes based on how many people they need to stay in power, how many real supporters there are--so that if they turn on you, you are politically dead. In a democracy such as the United States, for example, you need about thirty-four to thirty-five million votes to win the presidency, but there are about 260 million adults and 160 million registered voters in the population. There is a lot of flexibility in where you get your votes. That's how we classify regimes. I want to move away from classification by "regime type"--juntas, monarchies and autocracies--and think about them under new organizing principles.

The second part of your question asks about the diversity of dictators. Lee Kuan Yew behaved like a reasonably good guy compared to the Samuel Does of the world who run their countries into the ground and rape and pillage everything that is standing. The difference here is one of degree--each is trying to assume control but with different levels of discretion. Lee Kuan Yew was probably beholden to more people than Samuel Doe, which is one reason he had to provide more public goods. We think of him as developing Singapore economically, but he was certainly not above being a brutal man. He did not actually kill people and throw their entrails to the dogs, but if you crossed him he would prosecute you in the courts. Not that you were ever found guilty, but he would bankrupt you through the process. He would destroy all of his political opponents that way. You could not progress in government unless you supported him and he allowed you to get ahead.

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