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

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  6,252 ratings  ·  787 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 ...more
Hardcover, 352 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…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
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
Andrej Karpathy
Feb 19, 2017 rated it liked it
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
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
Feb 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
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
Jan 19, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...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.
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
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 ...more
Feb 21, 2017 rated it liked it
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.
Jan 30, 2012 rated it it was ok
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.
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing

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
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
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
Mar 20, 2017 rated it liked it
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, ...more
Jan 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Keith Swenson
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
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
Jan 20, 2019 rated it liked it
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.
Mikhail Novoselov
Jul 12, 2018 rated it liked it
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.
Alper Çuğun
Dec 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 16, 2018 rated it did not like it
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
Abdulla Alemadi
Jan 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Azita Rassi
Jul 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting, but perhaps more so for an American reader. I found it all too familiar and lived through.
Jul 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ss-ps-regimes
Just finished reading the book and I found it very interesting.
Son Tung
Dec 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
A seriously interesting read. I feel like bits and pieces of common sense about political survival are now summoned into oneness. The book does not boggle down with dry, philosophical ideology but provides a nicely constructed theory with well-articulated explanation and real world examples.
I have to say that writing a review gave me micro headaches since I have to summarize my own learning from this central idea of Selectorate Theory.

The Selectorate Theory tell us that leaders can be affected
Mar 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing

Despite the name of book itself, one should not think of it as a Machiavellian manual printed in 2011 with all the latest in horrible political trickery. This book is more about the theoretical wielding of power from the point of view of the ruling elite. As it takes a very big picture and very abstracted approach to things if you wanted a contemporary “Prince”, you’re probably better off absorbing the lessons of the likes of Frank Luntz I think, or perhaps every corporate management doctrine
Jul 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
When I glanced the title, my first thought was that it is another concoction of superficial factoids drawn from a few banal cases. It was anything but. Continuing the line of an honest and impartial researcher, much in the vein of Ecologic by David Clegg and Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker, the authors allow you to see a number of significant events from an unexpectedly curious, yet still very convincing point of view. They don’t hide their democratic leanings, but these aspirations and ...more
This book is a fascinating look at power and the ways every form of Government uses and maintains it. It's highly enlightening and thought provoking, posing a theory that dictatorships and democracies, countries and businesses really play by the same rules, and from a logical standpoint must do so to retain power. Filled with real world examples and lots of information, it manages to remain engaging and doesn't get bogged down when delivering statistics. A must read for those interested in ...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
“Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling. Buying loyalty is particularly difficult” 10 likes
“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” 10 likes
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