Highlights from The Dictator’s Handbook

“In fact, bad behavior is more often than not good politics.”

“It is hard to imagine that anyone, including ourselves, cares much about what we think ought to be. Neither do we exhort others to be better than they are.”

“Why do leaders do what they do? To come to power, to stay in power and, to the extent that they can, to keep control over money.”

“If we are going to play the game of politics, and we all must from time to time, then we ought to learn how to win the game.”

“No one rules alone; no one has absolute authority. All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching.”

“Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art, and science of governing.”

“This support is only forthcoming if a leader provides his essentials with more benefits than they might expect to receive under alternative leadership or government.”

“It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves.”

“The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy.”

“Why do some political parties favor immigration? Rule 2: Expand the set of interchangeables.”

“The problem for democrats is that they face different constraints and have to be a little more creative than their autocratic counterparts.”

“Anyone who thinks leaders do what they ought to do—that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects—ought to become an academic rather than enter political life.”

“When democratic politicians lament “mortgaging our children’s future,” they’re really regretting that it was not them who came up with the popular policy that voters actually want.”

“To achieve power means recognizing the moment of opportunity, moving fast, and moving decisively to seize the day.”

“Unless such a purge can be accomplished in the dark, presented as a fait accompli to the old group of influentials, the risk of failure is real.”

“This is the essential lesson of politics: in the end ruling is the objective, not ruling well.”

“Both leaders knew that it is better to have loyal incompetents than competent rivals.”

“Any action he took—say, sending so-and-so to Siberia—was the will of the people, and any of the people in the replacement pool had a chance, albeit a slight one, of being called up to serve as an influential or maybe even an essential somewhere down the line.”

“The real decisions are made by the group leaders who deliver blocs of votes. They are the true influentials. It is therefore unsurprising that it is common for the rewards to flow through them, so that they can take their cut, rather than go directly to the people.”

“Leaders, however, are rather fond of taxes—as long as they don’t have to pay them.”

“Ruling is about staying in power, not about good governance.”

“In autocracies, it is unwise to be rich unless it is the government that made you rich. And if this is the case, it is important to be loyal beyond all else.”

“It is ironic that while oil revenues provide the resources to fix societal problems, it creates political incentives to make them far worse.”

“Of course, borrowing more today means higher indebtedness and a smaller ability to borrow tomorrow. But such arguments are rarely persuasive to a leader.”

“This makes the current leader vulnerable. Incurring debt today is attractive because, after all, the debt will be inherited by the next administration. That way, it also ties the hands of any future challenger.”

“They resist the cry of people like us who demand improved governance before any bailout money is offered up to rescue a troubled autocratic economy.”

“That this uneven distribution of top-notch universities favors large-coalition locales is no accident.”

“To know what the people need, governments need to make it easy for the public to make clear what basket of public goodies they desire. That is best done by allowing the least costly and most precious public good of all: freedom.”

“The causal ties run both ways: power leads to corruption and corruption leads to power.”

“Anyone unwilling to undertake the dirty work that so many leaders are called on to do should not pursue becoming a leader.”

“Most of us would like to believe that foreign aid is about helping impoverished people.”

“Yes, it is true that a lot of aid is given to corrupt governments but that is by design, not by accident or out of ignorance. Rather, aid is given to thieving governments exactly because they will sell out their people for their own political security.”

“This is all just the dance of the donors and the takers, the recipients looking for as much money as possible and the donors looking for a highly salient, costly political concession.”

“A UNSC seat gives leaders valuable favors to sell in the form of their vote on the Security Council, and the aid they receive results in worse performance for their economy.”

“It is perhaps ironic that while aid affords the resources to alleviate poverty and promote economic growth, it creates the political incentives to do just the opposite.”

“A common argument is that the locals know much better how to address their problems than do far-away donors. That’s probably true, but knowing how to fix local problems and having the will or interest to do so is quite another matter.”

“Dictators are cheap to buy. They deliver policies that democratic leaders and their constituents want, and being beholden to relatively few essential backers, autocrats can be bought cheaply.”

“Buying democrats is much more expensive.”

“However, as long as we the people want cheap gasoline and an abundance of markets in which to dump agricultural products, and we want that more than we want to see genuine development in poor countries, then our leaders are going to carry out our wishes.”

“A prudent dictator nips rebellion in the bud. That is why we have reiterated the claim that only people willing to engage in really nasty behavior should contemplate becoming dictators. The softhearted will find themselves ousted in the blink of an eye.”

“Effectively the government told these survivors to go away and die quietly: inhumane in the extreme, but good small-coalition politics. Dead people cannot protest.”

“Allowing people to die reveals serious policy failure.”

“The willingness of democracies to try harder goes a long way to explaining why seemingly weaker democracies often overcome seemingly stronger autocracies.”

“Democrats more often than autocrats fight when all other means of gaining policy concessions from foreign foes fail. In contrast, autocrats are more likely to fight casually, in the pursuit of land, slaves, and treasure.”

“Democracies don’t fight with each other, true. Rather, big democracies pick on little opponents whether they are democratic or not, with the expectation that they won’t fight back or won’t put up much of a fight.”

“Democracy overseas is a nice thing to believe in, in the abstract. In practice it’s probably not what we, the people want.”

“It is precisely this predictability and normality of war that makes it, like all the pathologies of politics we have discussed, susceptible to being understood and fixed.”

“Pursuing the perfect world for everyone is a waste of time and an excuse for not doing the hard work of making the world better for many.”

“Think about what is good for interchangeables, influentials, and essentials, the three dimensions of political life:”

“The essential facts of political life are that people do what is best for them.”

“At the beginning and the end of an incumbent’s reign the danger of being purged is greatest and so, at these times, coalition members should be most receptive to reform.”

“Effective reform means expanding the coalition and that means that everyone, including the current essentials, has a good chance of being needed by tomorrow’s new leader.”

“Outsiders would be wise to take cues from the same lessons: the time for outside intervention to facilitate democratic change or improved corporate responsibility is when a leader has just come to power or when a leader is near the end of his life.”

“As the rules to rule by lead us to expect, states in which leaders required support from a larger proportion of the population developed faster.”

“The rules of the electoral college make it possible in a two-candidate race for one candidate to win a majority of the popular vote and the other candidate to be elected president of the United States.”

“Expanding immigrant access and rights, then, can boost the required size of the winning coalition and, in the process, improve the quality of public policy.”

“Give us your poor and let’s see if they can make a better life. Give us your tired and let’s see if they can be energized by participating in making a more public-goods oriented government work better. Give us your huddled masses longing to be free and let’s see if their children don’t grow up to be the foundation of a stronger, more peaceful, and more prosperous society than they first came to.”

“Using foreign aid to set up nationwide wireless access to the Internet and to provide the poor with mobile phones could be a win-win-win-win among the four constituencies affected by aid.”

“Offering such deals might prove self-fulfilling. Once essential supporters believe their leader might take such a deal, they themselves start looking for his replacement, so even if the leader had wanted to stay and fight he might no longer have the support to do so. “

“Leaders want to survive in office and maximize their control over money. But what if their choice is to trade the power of office in exchange for the right to the money?”

“Our individual concerns about protecting ourselves from unfriendly democracies elsewhere typically trump our longer term belief in the benefits of democracy.”

“Democracy overseas is a great thing for us if, and only if, the people of a democratizing nation happen to want policies that we like. When a foreign people are aligned against our best interest, our best chance of getting what we want is to keep them under the yoke of an oppressor who is willing to do what we, the people, want.”

“Every government and every organization that relies on a small coalition eventually erodes its own productivity and entrepreneurial spirit so much that it faces the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency.”

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