Browsing a bookstore for a gift for my daughter, I found The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Not that I want her to grow up to be a dictator – not even a “benevolent dictator.” That’s almost an oxymoron, as the book makes clear. In the dictating game, benevolence is for losers.
The authors admit the book is somewhat cynical. I gave it to my daughter because she’s studying international relations at Tufts, and (like her Dad) has always been keen to understand how the world really works. I’m pleased she’s been reading it attentively.
At the outset the book cautions that terms like “democracy” and “tyranny” may be somewhat misleading and unhelpful; there’s no such thing as one-man rule. What matters is how big the ruling coalition is; that is, the number of people whose loyalty and support are essential to the leader’s staying in power. Small, narrow coalitions of cronies are characteristic of dictatorships; as long as those few “essentials” stay loyal, the rest of the population doesn’t matter. The leader survives by keeping the “essentials” fat and happy, even at the expense of everyone else.
Democracies, in contrast, tend to be wide coalition systems; where there are genuine elections, a leader can’t just buy off a select few, but must satisfy a far wider population segment, often a majority.
The authors do perhaps cynically dissect the aspects of human nature that enable dictators to thrive by following its playbook. The lust for lucre and power is easy enough to understand. And once you become, say, President Mugabe, you really don’t have much choice about how to behave; it’s like riding a tiger; you’d better not fall off.
In the authors’ view, the old adage that power corrupts has things at least partly backwards: actually, corruption empowers. That’s how you buy off the “essentials.” And if power does corrupt, it’s partly because corruption is necessary to maintain power. (Especially in small coalition systems, but also to a degree in wide ones. Hence I rarely vote for incumbents.)
The chapter on foreign aid is eye-opening. Most aid is not merely useless, it’s injurious, mainly by helping bad regimes entrench themselves. Obviously that’s true when they can steal much of the money. But even where an NGO project seemingly benefits directly the populace of a poor country, bypassing the regime, still that often relieves the regime of having to make such expenditures itself, leaving more money available for coddling the “essentials.”
But the book’s true take-away is not at all cynical. To the contrary, it casts in sharp relief the virtues and benefits of wide coalition systems – i.e., democracy.
Here’s an example. “Social justice” types are often suckered by the supposed wonderfulness of Cuban health care and education. The authors examine the matter. Their conclusion, consistent with their overall schema, is that such regimes merely do just enough to serve not the public interest but their own. Their chief need is for a populace able to do enough work to generate the cash to keep paying off the leader’s partners in crime, the “essentials.”
In health care, that means keeping people in working condition. Care for oldsters and infants is less important because they are, respectively, no longer productive or won’t soon be productive. While Cuba does have relatively low infant mortality, this is largely a legacy of the pre-Castro era, when it was one of the world’s lowest; and while Cuba’s infant mortality has improved further, it has improved much less than in the rest of the world.
Similarly regarding education: “just enough” means basic literacy. Cuba does achieve that better than some democracies. But that’s where the commitment to education stops. The regime does not want its general population better educated, which might give them “dangerous” ideas. Thus, higher education tends to be quite poor in small coalition nations; none of the world’s top universities are found there.
So it becomes clear that wide coalition systems are, in myriad ways, better for human welfare – not surprising, since you can hold power in such systems only by satisfying a broad population segment.* And political freedoms are themselves important elements of human welfare, which wide coalition systems necessarily provide, while small coalition regimes dare not.
Further, while an occasional rare dictatorship sincerely tries to do right by its people, instances of success are even rarer – because, not actually dependent on popular support, small coalition regimes are handicapped in understanding what their subjects really want or need. (Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” may conceivably have been well intentioned, but no democratic leader could be so hugely clueless.)
So the authors deem it no coincidence that the world’s richer countries tend to be democracies, with tyrannies generally confined to poor ones. But poverty is a consequence, not a cause, of dictatorship; some nations are poor yet free. On the other hand, the authors seem to deny that being wealthy bars tyranny. Of that I’m dubious. History suggests that once a nation reaches a certain threshold level of per-capita GDP, its people will no longer tolerate mass exclusion from the ranks of the “essentials.”
China is fast approaching that level of wealth. Stay tuned.
* Note that U.S. gerrymandering considerably narrows the coalitions of “essential” supporters for legislators. That makes legislatures less democratic, and less responsive to broad voter concerns. It’s a major reason for the political problems we’ve seen.