Rules for Dictators

What makes for a successful dictator? In their new book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, both professors of politics at New York University, offer some basic guideposts on how to gain and maintain power — though not necessarily in a despotic setting. Seeking loyal aides, for example, can also serve politicians in democracies pursuing liberal ends. Gaining and maintaining power, however, requires illiberal measures that clearly don’t belong in a free society. In a recent online interview in The Economist, Smith outlines one such tactic: the denial of economic freedom.

It is virtually impossible to find any example where leaders are not acting in their own self interest. If you are a democrat you want to gerrymander districts and have an electoral college. This vastly reduces the number of votes a president needs to win an election.  Then tax very highly. It’s much better to decide who gets to eat than to let the people feed themselves. If you lower taxes people will do more work, but then people will get rewards that aren’t coming through you. Everything good must come through you. Look at African farm subsidies. The government buys crops at below market price by force. This is a tax on farmers who then can’t make a profit. So, how do you reward people? The government subsidises fertilisers and hands it back that way. In Tanzania vouchers for fertilisers are handed out not to the most productive areas but to the party loyalist areas. This is always subject to the constraint that if you tax too highly people won’t work. This is the big debate in the US. The Republicans are saying that the Democrats have too many taxes and want to suppress workers. But when they were in power five years ago they had no problem with taxing and spending policies, but now it’s taxing their supporters to reward Democrats.

Some people might react to Smith’s litany of statist outrages, saying, “I would never do things like that if I ran for office.” The problem is that many who have done such things while in office probably thought that once, too. As public choice theory makes clear, government officials, whatever their pretenses, don’t check their self-interest at their office’s door. Thus, economically insane policies may actually benefit somebody: those who enact them.