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

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. “Members of a small coalition live in luxurious but constant fear: make the coalition smaller . . . and they may be out; make the coalition bigger and their special privileges diminish.” Leaders in democracies where the real selectorate is almost the same as the nominal selectorate, and the winning coalition is large, must provide the “hugely valuable public good called freedom.”

While the authors identify democracies with freedom, they do not address the incentive of leaders to seek a balance between social responsibilities and individual liberty. They merely note that in addition to guaranteeing free speech, free assembly, and a free press, democracies must also satisfy demand for public goods such as education, health care, and a welfare safety net. All of that spending covers a multitude of special interest programs that benefit their supporters.

Selectorate theory claims to be a complete theory, explaining the rise, behavior, and demise of governments, organizations, business establishments, and human associations. This isn’t the first attempt at a complete theory of history. Karl Marx used two key variables to develop another complete theory of human history: 1) the productive forces, representing the relation between man and nature in the process of production, and 2) the relations of production or property rights, representing the relation among men themselves in the process of production. With clever use of those two variables and the labor theory of value, Marx thought he could fully explain the past and predict the future. A number of empirical tests of Marx’s theory of history in the last century (some still going on) contradict its premises.

Selectorate theory with its three variables is more benign and better grounded in positive analysis than Marxism. The authors identify and discuss the factors (the three key groups) that determine the political and economic lives of different human associations, but they skip analysis of the circumstances on which those factors depend. Like Marxism, selectorate theory falls short as a theory of political, social, and economic forces at work throughout history.

Nevertheless, the book is very readable and full of important observations that shed light on the reasons why people in power act the way they do.