The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics

By Pejovich, Svetozar | Freeman, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics


Pejovich, Svetozar, Freeman


The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Buena de Mesquita and Alastair Smith Public Affairs * 2011/2012 * 319 pages * $27.99 hardcover; $17.99 paperback

Reviewed by Svetozar Pejovich

This book has a terrific title. Every dictator should have a copy. In it Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith explain the brainchild they call the "selectorate" theory.

The focus of that theory is the leadership of governments, organizations, business establishments, and other associations. Leaders' power and longevity depend on the balance of power among three key groups in their respective communities: 1) the nominal selectorate, or "interchangeables"; 2) the real selectorate, or "influentials"; and 3) the winning coalition, or "essentials."The nominal selectorate consists of the pool of all potential supporters. The real selectorate is the group actually choosing the leader. And the winning coalition is the subset of the real selectorate on whose support the survival of all leaders depends.

The crucial implication of the authors' analysis is that our belief that there is a great difference between dictators and democratic "representatives" is just a convenient fiction. In their Machiavellian view, all kinds of rulers aim at their own survival, not "the public good."

Dictatorships are defined by a large nominal selectorate (such as all adult citizens in China, or the entire royal family in Saudi Arabia), a relatively small real selectorate (members of the Party in China, senior princes in Saudi Arabia), and a small winning coalition (members of the Central Committee of the Party in China, the innermost group of princes in Saudi Arabia) . Democracy is defined by a very large nominal selectorate (one person, one vote in the United States), an almost equally large real selectorate, and a large winning coalition (about one-fifth of the vote, efficiently placed across the United States.)

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith offer numerous observations in support of their claim that the three key groups provide the foundation for our understanding of the workings of governments and other types of associations. Observations range from the policies of medieval kings to Saddam Hussein's rise to power; from the founding of American democracy to City Manager Robert "Ratzo" Rizzo of Bell, California (whose mastery of selectorate theory wheedled him a prodigious salary in a small, poor town); from Tiananmen Square in China to the 2011 revolution in Egypt.

The authors argue that democracies have large winning coalitions and dictatorships have small ones. By implication, survival for dictators depends on the provision of private goods for the winning coalition - for the essentials - and requires little if any concern about providing public goods for the interchangeables or even the influentials. …

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