"The Dictator's Handbook" by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

Review by Borodutch

It all makes so much sense now. I strongly feel that "The Dictator's Handbook" will be among the best books I will have read in 2023. Don't wait, and go pick up a copy right now.

I originally come from Russia, and the politics of my home country has puzzled me for as long as I can remember. I'm only upset about one thing: why did I only learn about this book today, 11 years after it was published? The authors answer it all: Turkey, China, Russia, North Korea, Egypt, UAE, etc. How come these countries still have tyrants in power? Here's why: politics isn't about what the people need but about what specific named leaders need!

In the back of your mind, you've always known that but still disillusioned yourselves with rationalizations of various policies. We always want to believe that at least democracies are about the people — but nope, even there, it's still about the leaders, their coalitions, and cronies that keep them in power. Now, what do the leaders want to do? They want to obtain and retain the power!

How to best do this? Keep the number of people that elect (or erect, lmao) the leader small. Pay them nicely (don't care about the usual folk, like, ever). In fact, people in a country can be divided into:

  • Nominal selectors (interchangeables) — everyone who can legally select the leader (even in autocracies where legality is virtually fake).
  • Real selectors (influentials) — people who select the leader or select who can run for the office.
  • Winning coalition (essentials) — a subset of influentials that have the power to overthrow the leader (must be kept satisfied at all times).

The thing is — ideology or nationalism or patriotism simply do not matter. All these crazy-sounding laws and policies aren't made so that a more significant portion of the populous voted for the dictator. They are made primarily to enrich the small coalition supporting the leader!

But let's handle elections — why even have them? My opinion before reading this book was relatively split between various possible causes. However, now I know precisely why the rigged elections exist — elections are needed to keep the influentials in check. Oh. My. God. It makes so much more sense now. If every influential can be swapped for another interchangeable, their position, wealth, freedom, and life depend solely on the leader! They can always be booted if they become disloyal. In fact, this is precisely what we've seen happening in Russia repeatedly!

When we're talking about "forcing" dictatorships into holding democratic elections and sending independent foreign observers to legitimize elections, we're also very wrong. What ends up happening is that elections are rigged before they begin by silencing (or removing) the opposition! You can't win an election if the media never says your name aloud — or even better, if you're prevented from participating altogether!

Now, the book contains many more important details, and the authors discuss a lot of relevant stuff to both the democracies and the dictatorships of the world. For instance, why we should stop giving dictators foreign aid — it allows them to stay in power longer instead of toppling the regimes! Instead, the state's reliance solely on tax revenues leads to democratization. If the only way to enrich the cronies is through increasing productivity by giving people more liberties — this is what would happen. An exception to this rule is resource-rich countries, but then the correct way might be to cut the countries off the global trade so that a select few can't reap all the oil, gas, or lumber rewards.

The authors emphasize the role of the military and conflicts for the countries. Democracies start wars to win wars, and autocrats start wars to enrich their cronies! Oh. My. God. This makes so much sense and allows us to analyze wars from such a different angle that I can't even fathom how it didn't occur to me before.

Anyway, the thing you need to get out of this review is that you need to read this book right now. Otherwise, remember that politics is about getting to power and staying there, not the greater good. And to stay in power, one preferably needs a small group of supporters they control — without carrying about anyone else in the country. Observed through the lens of these simple postulates, world politics starts to make much more sense.