Why is it that leaders who frequently destroy their countries also manage to keep their jobs for extended periods of time? Why is
it that autocrats are so successful at collecting large amounts of foreign aid? How is it possible that the leaders of nations that are rich in natural resources also lead people who are frequently destitute? The broad objective of this engrossing book is to shed light on these sorts of questions. In the course of accomplishing this goal, the book provides “a way to make sense of the miserable behavior that characterizes many—maybe most—leaders, whether in government or business” (p. xi).
Giving the helpful example of Louis XIV, the authors point out that no leader rules alone and that no one has absolute authority. In addition, we are told that all political landscapes can be broken down into three groups of people made up of the “nominal selectorate,” the “real selectorate,” and the “winning coalition.” Given this state of affairs, it is salient to comprehend that all leaders wishing to succeed in any political system must subscribe to five basic rules. First, keep one’s winning coalition as small as possible. Second, keep one’s nominal selectorate as large as possible. Third, control the flow of revenue. Fourth, pay one’s key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Finally, do not take money out of the pockets of one’s supporters to improve people’s lives.
In their discussion of the salience of money in running any kind of organization, the authors make two useful points. First, they note that once a nation profits from mineral wealth, it is unlikely to democratize. Therefore, the “easiest way to incentivize the leader to liberalize policy is to force him to rely on tax revenues to generate funds” (p. 91). Second, we are told that by “eliminating debt relief for autocrats we can help precipitate the sorts of rebellions seen in the Middle East in 2011, rebellions that...may very well open the door to better governments in the future” (p. 98). Although these are useful points, some of the discussion here is a little sloppy. For instance, without providing an apposite clarifying context, the authors contend that the “more we spend today, the more we must pay in interest and debt payment tomorrow” (p. 92). The veracity of this contention depends on how today’s spending is financed; depending on the nature of this financing, it may or may not be the case that interest and debt payment tomorrow will increase. Similarly, on p. 93, without any supporting evidence, the authors assert that heavy borrowing by the leaders of third-world nations is not the result of their poor comprehension of economics but instead the outcome of their small coalition settings.
The fact that corruption can empower and that absolute corruption can empower absolutely is the subject of the sixth chapter of this book. The authors debunk the popular belief that by doing what’s best for their people, leaders will also be doing what’s best for them. On the contrary, we learn that “leaders must reward their coalition of essential backers before they reward the people in general and even before they reward themselves” (p. 127). Further, the authors point out that corruption is a “private good of choice” (p. 141) for many leaders because, inter alia, it provides the means to ensure regime loyalty without having to pay good salaries. Although these points are well made with helpful examples, the same cannot be said about the authors’ unsubstantiated claim that legal “approaches to eliminating corruption won’t ever work...” (p. 159, emphasis added).
The subject of foreign aid is covered in considerable detail. Using Pakistan as a veritable whipping boy, the authors contend that, in general, aid does far more harm than good. The Asif Ali Zardari government in Pakistan is rightly castigated not only for its venality but also for its callous behavior in the face of flood-induced privations suffered by large sections of the Pakistani people. This is all well and good, but somewhat quixotically, the authors barely mention the extent to which the Pakistani civilian government’s actions have been hamstrung by the seemingly omnipotent Pakistani army in the post-2001 era. In this regard, it is also difficult to accept the authors’ unqualified claim that “foreign assistance has proven ineffective at alleviating poverty and promoting economic growth” (p. 177). A nuanced reading of the literature shows that while many grandiose foreign aid projects have indeed failed in accomplishing their poverty alleviation goals, the same has not always been true of small-scale, narrow in scope, and specifically targeted aid projects.
While The Dictator's Handbook suffers from some errors of commission and omission, the book is well researched and thought provoking. It provides a wonderful and eminently readable account of why politicians are “self-interested louts,” and why this kind of behavior serves them well in first acquiring and then retaining their positions for extended periods of time.