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Dictator's Handbook Review

horia141 profile image Horia Coman Originally published at horia141.com on ・3 min read

I recently finished The Dictator’s Handbook. It was a good and quick read and definitely worth a checkout. It’s the popular version of academic works in the selectorate theory branch of political science. A branch the authors more or less started.

First things first, the title is a bit bombastic - it’s not really a manual for being or becoming a dictator. That sort of stuff you can’t learn in schools. But it is an interesting look at how power works in organizations. Chiefly states, but companies, their divisions etc.

The main idea is that leaders of organizations need the support of other people to become and keep being leaders. And that leaders more or less need to bribe their supporters in order to gain their support. Which kind of meshes with real-life in the way other theories don’t. Things get a bit more complicated, but the rest of the book does a bang up job of presenting various real-life situations which match the theory.

The full set of supporters is called the selectorate. The set of interchangeable backers comprises those people who can provide the support for a leader, while the set of essential backers is the subset of those who do, and which are really needed. Depending on the size and makeup of these groups, we get various forms of government for the organization. Large groups across the board form democracies, while small groups imply dictatorships. Indirectly small groups, like democracies with block voting also have the same issues

In all cases however, leaders basically need to bribe their essential supporters. By basically taking the organization’s resources and giving them to the supporters

In democracies this takes the form of public works, like roads infrastructure or hospitals, but only because it’s the most cost-effective way - even the largest sums end up low when divided by tens of millions of people, so simple monetary incentives will not do for most people to support one candidate against another. Even here, there is a bias for public works in favor of the essential supporters.

In dictatorships the set of essential supporters is small, so straight up monetary rewards work.

In both cases the main task of the leader is the management of their supporters so they can continue being a leader. And this means trying to keep the set of essentials small first, and keeping the set of interchangeable ones larger. These can be achieved via regular purges, gerrymandering, voter suppression laws etc. depending on the nature of the organization.

The latter point ties in really well with the insights into “Why Nations Fail”. There the point was that politically and economically inclusive governments ended up being better for people. These are the sorts of states which large sets of essential supporters, so leaders get by via public works.

There’s a number of interesting insights spread out. First is that we can reduce the set of base behaviours for a lot of complex political phenomena to just the will/need of leaders to survive, and the fact that a leader requires the support of other people to survive.

The second is that the survival of the leader and his regime is largely independent to how well the country is doing. It’s not enough for a country to be poor for revolutions to occur. The set of essential supporters needs to be affected so they’ll withdraw their support and back a challenger. This is one of the opportunities for positive government change. Again tied to the “Why Nations Fail” book, the challenger might not have such a advantageous essentials group, which means power might be more distributed / inclusive.

Closely tied to this is the fact that foreign aid doesn’t work. The authors were especially passionate about this point. Foreign state-directed aid is basically fuel for the leader to keep his essential supporters satisfied and delays the situation from the point above. Which means possible changes for the good are delayed.

Finally, the last two points explain a certain paradox. It’s in the interest of democracies to interact with non-democracies. The leaders of democracies need to keep a large set of essentials happy, which means public works for them. These in turn might be problematic to the population of another country. But if that country is under a despotic government, it’s enough to provide foreign aid / incentives to the leader and his small set of supporters, cause they don’t have a large electorate to force other decisions on them.

Anyway, take a look. As I’ve said, it’s a short read and you might actually be in a situation to use it!

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