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The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  7,748 ratings  ·  965 reviews
For eighteen years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don't care about the “national interest”—or even their subjects—unless they have to.

This clever and accessible book shows

Kindle Edition, 354 pages
Published September 27th 2011 by PublicAffairs
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John Smith I've read the book, you are sadly mistaken.

Sadly, because your parroting of Trump Derangement Syndrome, including a misspelling of his name in your c…more
I've read the book, you are sadly mistaken.

Sadly, because your parroting of Trump Derangement Syndrome, including a misspelling of his name in your coinage (why would any adult bother with such juvenility?) is tiring and feckless.

Mistaken, because the book covers leaders of any type, of corporations and nations, including A. Lincoln and Carly Fiorina, FDR and Chiang Kai-shek, The Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein, and says they all have elements in common. In some ways Trump merits praise by the books standards, for instance he'd cut foreign aid, as suggested by De Mesquita.

You should do some study and come to realize you own a poorly developed and strongly biased negative understanding of the man you think you are qualified to disparage. As such you fail in the effort.(less)
Maru Kun The thesis of the book can absolutely and probably very interestingly be applied to any organisation with its own "internal politics". Although mostly…moreThe thesis of the book can absolutely and probably very interestingly be applied to any organisation with its own "internal politics". Although mostly about national politics the book gives a couple of very illuminating extended examples from corporate life including Carly Fiorina at Hewlett Packard.(less)
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Maru Kun
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Politicians care only about their own power; politicians care about their electorate only to the extent that the electorate keeps them in power. The underlying thesis of this book - let’s call it ‘Political Truth’ – is a statement of such obviousness that one would think it could be said in a sentence or two rather than needing to be padded out over three hundred odd pages:

Is this a new idea? Of course not. But where this book succeeds is in giving Political Truth the support of a credible conce
Andrej Karpathy
This book examines positions of power (e.g. country leadership, mayors, CEOs, deans, etc.) by assuming entirely self-interested actors who seek to gain and retain power, and argues through examples that this relatively simple model gives the first order explanation of many world events. If you really grasp the message you'll adopt a much more cynical world view, but you'll also stop torturing yourself over stupid questions like what a country "ought" to do, what is "right", or why the people in ...more
Nov 20, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a very enjoyable book, full of what essentially amount to worked examples in the logic of political survival - going into detail about what behaviors occur under what political conditions, often furnishing multiple examples for each concept.

I will say that you can easily understand Bueno De Mesquita's basic thesis just by listening to the EconTalk podcasts on which he was a guest, particularly his 2006 and 2007 appearances, and in fact you may want to consider listening to these before
May 舞
May 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
When I was younger I'd believed that politics was a dirty game in which money and power were the sole motivators for anyone who played it. Then I grew up a bit, and I started thinking that perhaps it was truly about ideology: conservatism vs. liberalism, communism vs. capitalism, social justice vs. hierarchy.

Well, the naive opinion of my younger self turns out to be right on the money! (That was sheer luck, no doubt)
However, more remains to be said, for things are seldom as simple as they may s
Feb 10, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Basically, this author tells us over and over that powerful people abuse their power if no one checks them. This is not news. Also, there's a certain incoherence to the thesis even in the examples he uses: Bell, California was inevitably corrupt, but he can tell the story because everyone involved went to jail; foreign aid never works but the Marshall Plan was very successful, etc. Something is missing from the model. He needs to explain how the checks on corruption change in strength over time ...more
This is one of those books whose main thesis could be explained and extrapolated upon in about 10 pages, which means the rest of the book is pretty repetitive. Includes an interesting examination of political systems (autocracy vs democracy) and why politicians ultimately all work on the same incentives. Read the first few chapters and skim the rest.
This was a really interesting read. On the one hand, it's incredibly fascinating, but on the other, it's kind of so obvious that I feel like we should all be out here like "DUH. Dude, everyone knows that." But, clearly, no, not everyone does. Including myself. It's obvious to me after finishing this book, just how painstaking the research into this topic was - they had to go through so much history and political policy, for so many countries and political factions, and then analyze so much data. ...more
Jan 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Everybody understands that leaders reward the coalition that brought them to power, but I didn't understand all the implications of this.

Here's a bald summary, but you should read the book. I can't do it justice in a few sentences:

Whether leaders act in enlightened or brutal ways depends entirely on the size of their winning coalition. In all cases, the members of the winning coalition must be paid for continued support. Failure to do so ends the leader's career and, in small-coalition environ
Apr 01, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Why bad behavior is almost always good politics?

Because for a leader to stay in power, regardless of leadership style, it will inevitably necessitate self-serving actions of varying evils to the neglect or harm of the people.

I wanted to discover what whispers despots hear so I delved into this. (I wasn't surprised that #DutertePalpak fits many of the descriptions.) Naturally, for majority of us belonging to the public, and not party to the 'essentials' or the leader's winning coalition, we
Jan 30, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
While this book is easy to read and never gets boring, its authors oversimplify a number of issues and don't seem to realize when they have contradicted themselves. More often than not, I could come up with a counterexample to whatever idea they were pushing. Save your time and pick a better book. ...more
Even in print form, so much to take in. A denser text than I expected - talking narrow margins and small font - and so my politics nerd half hopes to buy a copy for myself and better absorb the material. Lots of insightful commentary and things that just make sense in here.
No matter whether the governing body is an autocracy, consisting of a domineering ruler who will strip every penny he can from his citizens or the most benevolent leader of a democracy, who seems from all outward appearances to care for his or her citizens, all rulers without exception follow the same basic rules of governing other human beings. Prior to reading this book, I would not have identified the patterns of a ruler's behavior and been able to boil them down to simple and predictable beh ...more
Read the first few chapters through and then skimmed the rest. The basic premise is that, regardless of whether a leader is democratically elected or assumes power through violent overthrow of the previous regime, the leader's raison d'être is to stay in power -- whatever it takes. The author proceeds through many chapters to give excellent examples of historical and more recent dictators and other world leaders and how they accomplished their main goals. Interesting but skimmable. ...more
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a super interesting book about the political economy of power. It's sort of like the smarter version of Robert Green's books. It dissects the incentives of those in power who want to keep control of their coalition. The most striking and interesting aspect of the book is that they apply these concepts to democracy as well. Because of course democracy is about power--it's just a larger coalition of voters. There are some good insights at the end as well about how to spread power out thoug ...more
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Mesmerizing and essential. A simple (yet well researched and presented) far reaching work that clearly explains why despots continue to thrive, how and why democracies flourish and why foreign aid and debt forgiveness can be a bad thing.

Highly recommended.
A competent primer on realpolitik, but most of the ideas in the book seem rather obvious to anyone that has read much history or studied politics for any amount of time...and isn't a Progressive.

Still, as suggested in the beginning, this is an adequate primer for realpolitik and for that reason it is valuable.

Please note, this is an abridged/popularized edition of 'The Logic of Political Survival'(also available as a Kindle). I've not read the original version and was more than a little upset
한 카트
May 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
By all means, this book just made me more cynical and hopeless about politics. Great read and all their arguments are pretty solid. Autocracies vs Democracies. Small coalitions vs big coalitions. How each handle their people, do they stay educated and healthy but unthreatening to power or the opposite.
The only thing that bothered me is the lenght of the book, I found it too long and very repetitive since the author had made most of his points in the first 100 pages, there was no need to keep go
Feb 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, politics
If at times a bit too reductionist, this is a generally coherent breakdown of political behavior into its most basic components. The authors posit that all politicians, whether authoritarian or democratic, are motivated by the desire to stay in power. While successful politicians will behave very differently in different contexts, this desire holds true no matter the time or place. Seems pretty straightforward, no? To stay on top, politicians must juggle the needs of three groups of people: the ...more
I really wish I could give this book a five-star rating, but I just can't force myself to do it.

First, I should note that the theory outlined in the starting chapters of the book is exceptional. Put shortly, it defines political regimes in terms of number of their beneficiaries and the number of people the ruler is beholden to. Despite being incredibly simple, this approach explains A LOT of features and actions of authocratic regimes that otherwise seem completely illogical and/or groundless. P
Mar 20, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was definitely an eye-opening book for me. I've never been a big fan of discussing politics, mostly due to the complexity of the topic and the fact that most people have strong opinions on it without having enough actual knowledge. While I still doubt I know enough about politics to make any convincing arguments, this book has made it quite clear on what the primary motivations for politicians are and how they tend to go about ruling based on those motivations. As cliched as it may sound, m ...more
Max Nova
May 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Full review and highlights at

I expected "The Dictator's Handbook" to belong to the genre of "bathroom readers" along with the likes of "The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook" and "The Dangerous Book for Boys." I was expecting colorful portraits of dastardly dictators and their evil escapades (like Robert Greene's "48 Laws of Power"). Instead, I found a very serious scholarly work written by fellows of Stanford's Hoover Institution. The authors ar
Feb 16, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
You know that guy at a party, slightly tipsy but very self confident and affable, who's made a good turn as an entrepreneur, and has ideas about how the world works, how politics works? Who's cynical but is also kinda like, well this how the game is played, so yolo?

I think the 'voice' of this book is that guy's voice. It is all very cynical and VERY partial reading of history, often inaccurate, often missing important details about how movements, and people and events took place, took shape. It
Keith Swenson
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting, well written book, that puts forth a clear thesis that makes a lot of sense.

I really liked the way that this book considers "the complete system" around governing. Too often leaders are either vilified or celebrated when the credit clearly lies partially with the system they find themselves in. The entire system is quite a bit more complex, and the qualities of the leader play off the qualities of the rest of the system. Nobody works in isolation, we should not analyze in isol
Jan 20, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Different take on coalition politics and how power is truly maintained. Excellent examples in world history of how coalitions are the main driving forces behind any political decision. However, the author ended up advocating for open borders and mass immigration in the final chapter thus spoiling what was prior to that, a decent read.
Azita Rassi
Interesting, but perhaps more so for an American reader. I found it all too familiar and lived through.
Tom Stamper
Mar 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
This is maybe the most cynical book on politics that isn't trying to be humorous. According to the authors, the politics is driven by self-interest even when masked as compassion and empathy. What really happens is that political leaders build a coalition of supporters and as long as they pay off the supporters they stay in power. In a dictatorship it's easy because the coalition is small and the payoffs can be handsome. In a democracy it's more difficult because there are more mouths to feed so ...more
Alper Çuğun
Dec 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: venkat
This is a great book with loads of insights about how the world actually works and why that is the case. Talk about good intentions and this ideology or that in international relations may look like it has influence, at the end of the day the pure lenses of self-interest and self-preservation prevail.

I found understanding those base principles and their implications for policy and change to be useful additions to a toolkit of understanding how the world works. In short the larger the coalition o
Sebastian Gebski
Aug 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked it A LOT. The beginning wasn't that encouraging (the theses the book is built around felt limited and repetitive), but it has got far better in time. How come? Mainly due to many interesting historical references that are relatively unknown to an average reader - Nicaragua, Kenya, Burma, even some better-known stories (Palestine, South Africa, Iraq, Iran) have got some attention and interesting examples are brought to the table.

In the end, it still feels like all the authors wanted was t
Jul 11, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ss-ps-regimes
Just finished reading the book and I found it very interesting.
Abdulla Alemadi
Jan 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
such an eye-opener! The book completely changed my perspective on politics. besides, it's a well written and enjoyable read. Recommended for anyone who wants to know how politics really work. ...more
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Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a political scientist, professor at New York University, and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in international relations, foreign policy, and nation building. He is also one of the authors of the selectorate theory.

He has founded a company, Mesquita & Roundell, that specializes in making political and foreign-policy forecasts using a computer model

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“Leaders never hesitate to miscount or destroy ballots. Coming to office and staying in office are the most important things in politics. And candidates who aren’t willing to cheat are typically beaten by those who are. Since” 11 likes
“Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling. Buying loyalty is particularly difficult” 9 likes
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