learning from dictators

Learning from dictators

A review of The Dictator's Handbook

Initially, I thought the Amazon algorithm must have made a mistake when  The Dictator’s Handbook appeared in my recommendations. Terrifyingly they rarely falter in the accuracy of their recommendations; I devoured this book over several days. It’s an essential read for anyone interested in politics, business structures and governance. The authors, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, explore in detail why bad behaviour is almost always good politics. Whilst a deeply depressing read, it is essential to know a system’s flaws if one hopes to eventually improve governance. However, stay clear of this book if you have an ‘ignorance is bliss‘ approach to life or want to believe political leaders have our best interests at heart.

A Freakonomics approach to politics

This book is perfect for those who have a desire to learn more about politics but aren’t experts in the subject. I know an average amount about politics; the imperfections in the system and the varying motivations of those who pursue this particular line of work. A global approach is taken to analyse political frameworks and I found this to be an advantage. One country’s political system should not be reviewed in isolation. There are too many component parts and we are connected now through shared global economic interest. Examples are peppered throughout making what could be a dry subject engaging and horrifyingly entertaining.

Shedding new light on government approaches to Coronavirus

I read this book pre-COVID, but reviewing it now, a year into the crisis offers a fresh perspective. Once again The Dictator’s Handbook helps us to understand the leadership decisions made within governments. This isn’t about supporting conspiracy theories. In fact, when you review the largely mishandled government responses globally, you quickly understand how much political damage the pandemic threatens. It remains unlikely to have been orchestrated by governments despite the fact that some have used this as an opportunity to restrict voting opportunities and personal freedoms.

Bravo to…

Successful leaders and dictators are given the shoutout they deserve in The Dictator’s Handbook. At the beginning  the five core rules to succeed in any system are listed and masters of the approach are highlighted:

  1. Keep your winning coalition as small as possible allowing for greater control – Kim Jong Il
  2. Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible allowing you to change them quickly and easily – Vladimir Lenin
  3. Control the flow of revenue allowing you to be rich and keeping your population poor – Asif Ali Zardari
  4. Pay your supporters just enough so they don’t look to replace you but are kept on their toes – Robert Mugabe
  5. Never invest financially in your people before your supporters – Senior General Than Shwe

If you’ve read the above thinking ‘phew I’m safe’ because you live in a democracy your comfort will be short-lived. On page 19 Mesquita & Smith show how democratically elected parties play by the same rules.

You need to be of a strong constitution to make it to the end of this book. Each page is a reminder of how bad behaviour pays; it makes you rich and keeps you in power. The opposite of what your ethical gut is telling you is right and just. This doesn’t mean that the future is devoid of hope, it’s just a brutal reminder of the tenure of badly behaved leaders.

Key lessons from The Dictator’s Handbook

Hate the player and the game

You could get to the end of The Dictator’s Handbook swearing off voting and vowing never to be engaged in a dysfunctional system. Or, you could think about the things that shift behaviour and drive change. Democracy is an imperfect system and over-time we’ve awarded short-term policies. But, when you have a vote, you still have a voice. Where you can freely protest you have an opportunity to drive change. Political movements are one of the best things to come from the growth of social media. You can hate everything about how things are now, but that should fuel change rather than extinguish ambitions.

Money is power

Dictators keep their positions through fear and control. This means that a financial crisis often represents an opportunity for change. Once a leader is unable to pay his army he is often overthrown. Protection often comes at a price, hence the importance of controlling revenue and staying rich.

It’s in the genes

In America, nearly 20% of presidents were close relatives of each other. So, whilst we think of American as a democracy, the leaders who are elected are carefully curated from a small pool of powerful men. Not quite a dictatorship or a dynasty, but far from an accurate presentation of the population they serve.

Natural resources are bad news for the people

When a country is rich in natural resources the population doesn’t need to be encouraged to work to generate revenue for the leader. This means international investment can be sought and the dictator’s pockets can be quickly lined. This allows him to fund his security, pay his coalition and stay in power. Nigeria, one of the examples provided, is a familiar story to most. Despite accumulating over $350 billion in revenue over a thirty-year period, in 2000 70% of the population was living on less than $1 a day. Not detracting from the disparity and injustice of the situation, it is shocking to see that this is such a clear trend. Nations rich in natural resources such as oil and minerals, grow more slowly.

Lobby your own government rather than giving aid

The authors argue that it is more beneficial to lobby to reduce consumption of these natural resources (either through policy or taxation) rather than giving money to aid organisations. Because, when you cut the demand for resources, the dictator will have less opportunity to fund his army and coalition making political change more likely.

Democracy has a bigger impact on infant mortality than wealth

Generally speaking, dictators aren’t big fans of babies. Their interests remain in protecting their small group of essential supporters and funds deviate away from public health. Babies can’t vote and don’t help despots stay in power so they get a raw deal. The statistics support this analysis:

The world’s 36 governments that depend on the largest groups of essentials have thirty-one few infant deaths per thousand births than the foorty-four governments that depend on the smallest groups of essentials

Wealth is a factor in infant mortality, but not as much as democracy.

Question how helpful charity is

This is a hard one to read, especially as someone who has spent time abroad working in charities. When we give our time or money we need to be aware of the wider impact. Whilst our motivation probably comes from the right place, it doesn’t mean that the effort has the intended consequences. Dictators will take foreign aid to help themselves and fund their essentials. Even building schools might remove jobs from locals or stop communities from protesting for change. The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier comes to a similar conclusion around foreign aid and our inability to help in a way that drives meaningful change.

What is to be done?

I was desperate to get to chapter 10! Whilst important to understand the current state of play, tangible actions matter more. Sadly, there is no perfect system, there is only the development of a system where the majority of people get what they want most of the time.

The idea is to get a balance between the size of the essential coalition and the engagement of the nominal selectorate. One suggestion from the book is for corporations is to have a network where shareholders regularly shared timely and relevant information with the selectorate (minority shareholders). This would ensure that boards were genuinely elected by the diverse range of corporate owners and not just in the interests of the CEO and small essential coalition. This could be an interesting concept in terms of transparency and engagement but it is hard to imagine large companies adopting this approach.

No magic bullet exists for the future and the authors make some recommendations for potential changes. In reality, these aren’t tangible and suitable for all governments. But there is a little optimism nestled in the last few pages:

Every govenement and every organisation that relies on a small coalition eventually erodes its own productivity and entrepereneurial spirit so much that it faces the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency.

Despite the sombre tone, The Dictators Handbook shows that there is a little hope. Having the right governance in place provides the best opportunity for all. Education and skills are essential and more valuable than aid. Even social media, which comes with its own dangers, can be mobilised in a way to share information and instigate change.

About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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