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A Review of “The Dictator’s Handbook”

February 29, 2012

I just finished reading “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics” by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. They start from the assumption that all leaders do whatever they can to remain in power. Leaders who don’t, get replaced by those who do. The critical difference between governments is the size of the “selectorate”, those who have a say, and the “winning coalition”, those whose support is sufficient to hold power. So, in America, the selectorate is most of the adult population and the winning coalition is Democrats. In Iran, the selectorate is limited to high ranking clerics. The larger the selectorate, the more public good provision and good governance is necessary to stay in power, and vice versa.

The authors take this basic framework and apply it to a wide variety of situations, and explain how to get power, how to stay in power, why some revolutions are successful and various patterns of behavior among autocracies. The chapter on foreign aid is the best thing I have read on developmental economics since “The Elusive Quest for Growth” by William Easterly. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in political science or developmental economics. It’s well written, follows a clear and consistent logic, and offers plenty of anecdotes to keep the reader entertained. The book’s main drawback is that it can be repetitive, especially in the intermediate chapters. The chapters about getting and staying in power could be abridged. It might have been nice to have a few more detailed case studies as well rather than a large number of broad brush stories. There were many times when I was reading that I felt like the authors could have provided more data and graphs. Overall though, I would say it’s a very good book for anyone who is beginning their study of political science. As other reviewers have said, if you are a hardcore realpolitik public choice kind of person, you won’t find anything surprising here, especially if you are already familiar with selectorate theory.

Here is a list of the EconTalk podcasts Bueno de Mesquita has done.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 10:48 am

    Just read your review, and I am not sure we see eye to eye on selectorate. You say that in America it is the adult voting population, which is true. In Iran it the high ranking clerics. That is incorrect, those are members of the winning coalition. I think what most anti-dictators fail to notice is that those evil “High ranking clerics” in Iran DO HAVE large public support. Ayatollah Khomeini routinely has higher favourability rankings than the president and other officials, who were voted in.

    I agree that in Dictatorships the selectorate is probably smaller than in democracies, but they still need generally broad support, or they will be overthrown or assasinated. Hitler generally had high public support.

    • February 29, 2012 11:10 am

      You are exactly the type of person the book was written for, altho you won’t agree with all of it.

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