In the prettified version of power, leaders are larger-than-life media figures who can command loyal citizens and militaries through intelligence and charisma. They come into power cleanly and fairly, and their country’s citizens are close to their concerns. Countries are tidy places with laws that people follow. The wealthier nations contribute funds to raise-up the world’s poor. The ideological narratives are all about a country’s righteousness.
Not quite. These are all adult fairytales to romance populations.
Underlying the world’s power structures are the Machiavellian “rules to rule by,” regardless of ideology, nationality or culture.
Renowned political scientists Drs. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have analyzed the art of governance for decades, and their computerized analysis of historical events have resulted in “The Dictator’s Handbook.”
Political leaders of every stripe rely on various constituencies. Those who are most critical to their survival in power are known as “essentials” or “the winning coalition.” Without these crucial individuals, such as the military and business leaders of a country, a country’s leader would be finished.
The “real selectorate” are those who are the “influentials” to a leader, whose input directly affects a leader and are critical to his or her holding power. Think this does not apply to the US? “In fact, given the federal structure of American elections, it’s possible to control the executive and legislative branches of government with as little as about one fifth of the vote, if the votes are really efficiently placed,” they write.
Finally, there is the “nominal selectorate” or “interchangeables,” who are the common citizens who allegedly have a say about the leader’s selection and governance but in name only.
Leaders generally care about only the essentials and influentials; the interchangeable are pretty far from their concerns. Governance is about balancing the interests of the essentials and influentials in order to preserve a leader’s power, which is his or her central concern. If self-interest is thought to drive economies, the insatiable need for power drives political leadership.
An aspiring leader has to seize and hold power at the opportune moment. For some, this has meant deposing a sitting leader through a coup or assassination. Others have fomented rebellions or revolutions. Still others have grabbed power when foreign militaries have invaded. Shortly after acquiring power, new leaders have to pursue moneys to pay off their critical coalitions of supporters-from taxation, raiding the treasury, squeezing the citizens, or nationalizing property.
New leaders also will purge their close supporters if they do not seem absolutely loyal or have a sufficient alternate power base or talent or standing to challenge the leader’s power. In autocracies, these mean exile or execution.
Power is a basic prerequisite for governance. To keep that power, most want the lowest number of people necessary that they have to pay off. Power becomes less efficient to maintain the more constituents there are that are essential to being paid off. Most practical autocratic leaders are not so interested in having more citizens to be the interchangeables because they involve responsibilities without being really necessary to that leader’s power.
To keep political cronies loyal, a leader merely has a number of other possible supporters waiting to take their places. Autocratic governments often hold rigged elections to remind powerful politicians that they’re expendable. They may be removed by fiat.
If a leader is faced with a life-threatening illness, he or she has to protect this as a state secret because any leakage of that knowledge will lead to jockeying for his or her power.
The authors differentiate between governments not by the traditional labels like “autocracies” or “democracies”. Rather, they want readers to consider small-coalition governments (those in which leaders are beholden to a few essentials and influentials) and large-coalition ones (those in which leaders are responsible to a much broader range of essentials and influentials).
In small-coalition governments, leaders have little incentive to maintain the general welfare of their “interchangeable” or mainstream populations. They invest little in infant care and so often have very high infant mortality rates. Education is not designed to uplift their citizens, who could be informed enough to turn against their own governments, but to merely keep them functioning sufficiently to support the local economy.
The payoffs to political supporters may take on a number of forms in small-coalition governments. There may be plumb positions that supporters may take to reap financial rewards. They may be given access to smuggling and black market trading. They may be allowed to take over certain industries, from which they may require bribes as the cost of doing business. Others may get the perks of traveling abroad. Private benefits such as bribes will skew markets and distort economies. The authors observe a “prevalence of master thieves” among world leaders who have absconded with hundreds of billions for themselves alone.
Autocratic countries that have access to mineral or extractive resources tend to suffer from less social and economic development. The rewards of such resources accrue to the leadership and the inner circle without much benefit to the common people. “Resource-rich nations have worse economic growth, are more prone to civil wars, and become more autocratic than their resource-poor counterparts,” they write, citing Nigeria and Angola. If an incumbent is reliant on tax revenues to raise funds, then he or she can no longer oppress the population as directly because the citizens can exercise power by stopping work.
By contrast, in large-coalition governments, competition between leaders occurs over the optimal basket of public goods that the government can offer to its electorate. Because there are so many essentials and influentials in the larger-coalitions, leaders cannot get by with private payments to supporters but have to offer public goods (and pork-barrel projects). Democratic leaders have to provide a sufficient education to encourage innovations to keep the economy growing and the public coffers full. However, if they can borrow, they will do so profligately to offer goods to win political popularity.
The authors identify five rules of power: “Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Control the flow of revenue. Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better.”
What does this model mean? It means that in a financial crisis, for autocratic countries, those more wealthy large-coalition governments should not extend debt relief to alleviate poverty-and in doing keep corrupt leaders in power. Rather, they should let those leaders be pressured out of office. Eliminating debt relief may precipitate “the sorts of rebellions seen in the Middle East in 2011, rebellions that, as discussed later, may very well open the door to better governments in the future,” they write.
In terms of survival, autocrats make out better than democrats if they are able to survive the initial power-grab. “On average, for instance, democrats who make it through the first six months in office have about a 43 percent chance of being out by the end of their second year; autocrats only have about a 29 percent chance of being ousted in the same amount of time. Making it to ten years, democrats are three times more likely to be replaced than their autocratic, small-coalition counterparts.”
Those who would challenge leaders’ power are those in the so-called great “in-between”-not those who are too oppressed nor too coddled. Autocratic leaders put into place policies to keep the people “at bay.”
Small-coalition leaders build shoddy transportation infrastructures to keep new power centers from arising to challenge their own power base. In some small-coalition nation-states, there is a preference for massive construction projects (such as giant dams and showy stadiums?) more typical of autocrats who may use those to generate corruption opportunities (private rewards) and to showcase their leadership.
Those with larger coalitions prepare better for possible cataclysmic earthquakes because the costs of high numbers of deaths from such events mean removal from office in a democracy but not so much in an autocracy (with more limited coalitions).
Free speech, the freedom of assembly, and a free press are necessary elements not only to coordinate large winning coalitions but to promote the innovations needed for a free market economy. Freedom as a public good is not often seen in small-coalition governments because these very tools may also be used to organize against unsatisfactory leaders.
Democrats are bound by many constraints in their governance at home, but their instincts abroad tend to be “little better than the tyrannical leaders who rule those very foreign regimes.” There, they strive to achieve foreign policy aims by working with those in power, no matter how unsavory. There is little to no oversight over where such aid goes or how it is distributed by the foreign country. Such aid does not buy much in the way of good will for American policies in “the street”.
Democratic citizens are not particularly benevolent or altruistic. They believe in alleviating poverty only if it does not cost them anything. Their loyalty is fickle, and their memory is short. They want leaders who achieve their objectives, not those who give away resources for nothing.
Most democratic states show little concern for the long-term interests of other countries, and that is how it should be, the authors assert. The American electorate in particular is impatient for other countries to fall in line, much more than wanting other nations to democratize. American foreign aid is about buying compliance to American foreign policy goals. One way to enhance the effectiveness of American foreign aid is to pay only when certain results are achieved. They should not be paid out at the moment of promise-making (as in aid to Pakistan, which has the perverse incentive of allowing anti-Western terror groups to function on their territory to keep the aid flowing).
According to this model, bringing in productive immigrants through more friendly citizenship policies makes sense.
Further, the US should not push for rigged elections just for this semblance of a democracy when it’s only symbolic or for show (and one suspects, may result in anti-American leaders coming into office in fledgling democracies).
Over time, the quality of life for people in petty dictatorships diminish because their leaders do not have the confidence nor the foresight to build up their population’s health, education, and capabilities, and they do not build up an infrastructure to support human innovation.
The authors conclude with Carl von Clausewitz’s idea that war is inherently politics by other means. Small-coalition governments tend to fight in ways that would not deplete their treasuries (and thus deplete their abilities to pay off cronies and soldiers).
Autocrats are less sensitive to military defeat and tend to be able to stay in power much lower than democratic leaders, so they have less incentive to protect their own troops.
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.