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Citation: 67 Int'l J. 1095 2011-2012
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THE DICTATOR'S HANDBOOK
Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith
New York: PublicAffairs, 2012. 352pp $21.00 (paper)
Is there a "theory of everything" in politics? That is, is there something that
explains our major concerns-patterns of war and peace, political order
and instability, the emergence and survival of democracy and dictatorship,
and the politics of prosperity and poverty? Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
and Alistair Smith claim to present a theory explaining many of these
phenomena according to few core variables. This book provides stimulating
answers to pressing political problems, drawn from a relatively simple and
powerful model. At its best, the book can boast of providing analysis that
appears counterintuitive at first but seems obvious once it is laid out. There
are serious analytical problems at the core of the model, but the book is
This book is a codification for a popular audience of the "selectorate
theory" of politics, elaborated by the authors, along with James D. Morrow
and Randolph M. Siverson in numerous articles and, most comprehensively,
in the dense, mathematical The Logic of Political Survival (MIT Press, 2003).
The theory's basic assumption is that leaders' interest in political survival
drives everything they do: war, repression, corruption, political reform, tax
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policy. What leaders have to do to survive depends, in turn, on how many
people form a winning coalition-that is, how many they have to pay off to
stay in power. Leaders must maintain a winning coalition drawn from the
"selectorate"-those individuals lucky enough to play a role in deciding who
gets to be in office. The three core variables in politics, for the authors, are
the size of the winning coalition needed, the size of the selectorate that the
winning coalition can be drawn from, and the amount of cash available to
spread around. In small-coalition polities like dictatorships, leaders can stay
in power through the judicious use of private rewards. Not every dictatorship
is the same; in some dictatorships, there are plenty of selectorate members
itching for the chance to get in on the action, bidding the price of loyalty
down. In others, there are very few selectorate members, and the dictator is
more vulnerable to them.
In contrast, in a democracy, the selectorate is large, but so is the coalition
needed to win. Voters need payoffs, just like strongmen in a dictatorshipbut the difference in size is crucial. In a democracy, it would be far too
costly to give enough voters a direct bribe. Leaders in large-coalition polities
therefore distribute more public goods-that is, they must actually govern
in the public interest, at least to a greater degree, to stay in power. Dictators
need only keep the right people paid off; this is why democracies prosper
faster than dictatorships. However, revolutions occur when there is not
enough money to go around to keep people off the street or to pay the army.
Since dictatorships are bad for prosperity, there is some hope-provided that
there is not enough oil or diamonds to make the public interest irrelevant to
the dictator's flow of money.
That is the core of the book, developed over a few chapters that capture
the skulduggery of coming to power and keeping it through bribes and
payoffs. Much of the argument is older than the authors let on. It is hardly
novel to say that democracy offers better public policy than dictatorship
because leaders in the former are more required to act in the public interest.
Indeed, it was almost twenty years ago that the late Mancur Olson put this
argument in the contemporary political-economy terms of public goods
provision. Second, financial crisis as a source of cracks in regimes and hence
revolution is a staple of the democratization literature. Finally, the "resource
curse" is by now as well-known an idea as there is in comparative politics.
There is definitely a service in providing some unity to all this, but a bit more
acknowledgement of others' contributions would have been welcome.
The authors do introduce some interesting conceptual refinements on
regime types and survival. A continuous measure ofpolitical regimes based on
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the size of the winning coalition and the selectorate allows for more nuanced
distinctions than do the chunky categories of "democracy" and "dictatorship."
For example, the authors usefully explore nuances in electoral rules across
democracies, giving an ordering principle to understand how the minutiae
of gerrymandering, reserved seats, and proportional representation affect
politics by affecting the size of the winning coalition and the selectorate. The
authors distinguish among dictatorships in terms of the number and power
of influential individuals, providing insight into how it can be that China's
president, Hu Jintao, is able to turn over power when many other dictators
would not. The authors make a major contribution in making clear just how
vulnerable dictators often are to the powerful individuals surrounding them,
and in seeking to understand how leaders vary in this vulnerability.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith come at this material as scholars of
international politics, and two chapters on foreign aid and war and peace are
of considerable interest. Foreign aid goes disproportionately to dictatorships,
and is frequently misused in recipient countries. The misuse of aid is wellknown in the aid literature, to be sure, but the authors provide an innovative
and disturbing explanation. These perverse patterns of aid emerge not
just because of mistakes on the part of well-meaning rich countries, but
by design, because dictators are pliant. Rich countries give aid in exchange
for policy changes in the recipient country; these policy changes are often
locally unpopular. To be willing to pay the political price of these policy
changes, democratic recipients need heftier bribes in the form of foreign
aid than dictators do. However much the United States spent to secure
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's continued cooperation with Israel, the
argument goes that it would have to spend a lot more for the same policy
in a democratic Egypt-and the US may indeed be priced out. There are
many more Mubaraks than there are Marshall Plans because it is rare that
the donor actually has a positive interest in the recipient's prosperity, as the
United States did with Western Europe at the outset ofthe Cold War. It is only
in the latter sort of scenario, with a threat like the Soviet Union requiring
long-run burden-sharing among the most capable allies, and with a fairly
clear common aim, that donors have an affirmative stake in the recipient's
democracy and prosperity.
The authors then turn their attention to war and peace. Bueno de
Mesquita and Smith start with the familiar Kantian argument about the
political constraints on democrats in war. Soldiers and their families are
voters, and democrats are much more vulnerable to being turfed out of office
if a war goes badly. So they are less inclined to throw lives away. Dictators,
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in contrast, have the freedom to go to war if they will, personally, profit by it,
whatever the cost paid by their citizens. More innovative is the argument that
when democratic regimes fight, they fight harder. They pick their battles,
fighting when it will benefit the general public on whose votes they depend
and when they are likely to win, not for their own enrichment. Democracies'
armies, in turn, are built to win, not to keep the head of government in office.
Democracies, then, do not fight each other, because for a war to break out,
two democratic leaders would both have to believe that fighting was worth
the awful domestic political risks. Democracies are happy to fight dictators,
because the latter will often fight losing battles to benefit personally. The
approach helps make sense of several different features of regime type and
war, including the lack of war among democracies and the tendency of the
latter to win. However, a fuller discussion of counterinsurgency warfaremore common than traditional interstate warfare-would have provided
greater contemporary relevance, especially considering that democracies do
not actually seem to perform any better than dictatorships at this type of
This book, while insightful across a wide array of political domains, has
some serious flaws. The most important are analytical. Principally, very little
indication is given as to how the size of the selectorate and the winning
coalition are measured-and in particular how some people get to decide
who stays in office, and others do not. For example, we are told that the
Saudi selectorate is "made up of the royal family and a few crucial merchants
and religious leaders" (7). But there is little explanation given of how it is that
these individuals come to be influential. Consider a tribal leader in Libya. He
may be a member of the selectorate, but only if his supposed followers will
actually follow his decisions about whom to support-and it is difficult to
say in advance if they will. If that leader's decision to endorse the opposition
were observed to be influential in the latter's success, then we would be
forced to conclude that that tribal leader had been a member of Muammar
Gaddafi's selectorate-whether we had observed that beforehand or not.
This way lies circular explanations, of the following order: Gaddafi fell
because he could not keep his selectorate happy. How do we know? Because
members of his selectorate defected. How do we know they were members
of his selectorate? Because when they defected, he fell. More information
from Bueno de Mesquita and Smith about their procedures for identifying
selectorate members might help to allay these concerns about circular logic.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith claim to provide a refreshing break
from idealistic maundering about politics, exposing instead how politics
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work in the real world. They are comfortable in putting Genghis Khan into
perspective by declaring that he was clever about massacring villages pour
encouragerles autres,and so, "in aggregate, he didn't actually have to slaughter
that many people" (129). A willingness to talk dispassionately about bad
people is surely a salutary part of political analysis. But they overreach. Bueno
de Mesquita and Smith write, "The sooner we learn not to think or utter
phrases such as 'the United States should do...' or 'the American people
want...' or 'China's government ought to do,' the better we will understand
government." It is a non-sequitur to argue that because political leaders do
not rule by values or ideals, we should not think about values or ideals either.
The recommendation to give up ought questions would be more shocking
than any of the claims about Genghis Khan, but as it happens, Bueno de
Mesquita and Smith cannot sustain it even for a paragraph: they hope also to
"begin to see how to fix politics" (xix). This would seem precisely to require
normative arguments, if it is to be done democratically.
According to the authors, their theory "connects dots of political
consequence across the widest canvas imaginable, deepening our
understanding of the dynamics of all rulers and their populations" (xxv).
They go further than this claim. To them, although "politics is not terribly
complicated... history's most revered political philosophers haven't explained
it very well" (xix). The authors say they do better than Machiavelli, Hobbes,
Montesquieu, or Madison (xix-xxi). This is, to say the least, a singular claim.
It distracts the reader from seeing the book for what it is: interesting,
perceptive, and worthwhile.
This is a bracing book that does indeed connect the dots across a wide
array of political phenomena. Selectorate theory can crystallize an insightful
way ofseeing the world for observers ofpolitics. The body ofselectorate theory
is highly important to students of comparative politics and international
relations alike, and a broader audience has a serviceable introduction here.
Theodore McLauchlin/University of Montr6al
I Reviews I
THE EUROPEANIZATION OF DOMESTIC LEGISLATURES
The Empirical Implications of the Delors' Myth in Nine Countries.
Sylvain Brouard, Olivier Costa, Thomas K6nig, eds.
New York: Springer, 2012. 244pp, $116.19 (cloth)
Before reading this book, I used to tell my students what I suspect many
readers of this review tell theirs, namely that 8o percent ofnational legislation
in Europe originates from Brussels. Most European Union (EU) legislation
must indeed be "transposed" into national law, either through executive
decrees or ordinary laws. This means that some proportion of domestic
laws are either rubberstamped by national parliaments or not even reviewed
by them because they are downloaded from the EU. The proportion of 8o
percent is one of those hooks we use to convince blas6 undergraduates that
the EU is an important illustration of post-national democracy, as worthy of
their interest as participatory democracy in Porto Alegre or the threat of war
in the South China Sea.
Fortunately, when my co-author, Julien Weisbein, and I wrote our
French textbook on the EU, we did not invoke the 8o percent figure because
we could not find an appropriate reference for it. Thanks to Sylvain Brouard,
Olivier Costa, and Thomas Konig, we can now rely on new figures. This
edited volume begins by tracing the origins of the "Delors' myth," named
after Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, who
seems to have first mentioned the 8o percent figure. It turns out that Delors
was more nuanced than the myth he created. He actually said the following:
"In io years, 8o% of the legislation related to economics, maybe also to taxes
and social affairs, will be of Community origin" (emphasis mine). In the two
decades that followed, commentators, from EU scholars to the Dutch Upper
Chamber, expanded this prediction to include all legislation. This became a
convenient truth for both Europhiles, who could thus overstate the level of
supranational integration, and Euroskeptics, who could lament the creation
of a European superstate.
Yet even Delors' relatively cautious assertion (compared to the way I
used to misquote him) turns out to be wrong. After a careful, methodical,
painstaking examination of legislative production in eight EU member
states (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, and Spain) and Switzerland, the editors of this book conclude
that the proportion of domestic laws that have been adopted as a result of
EU pressures ranging from six percent (in the late 1980s) to 29 percent (in
the 2000s)-an upward trend, to be sure, but not quite reaching 8o percent.
Furthermore, this book shows that national parliaments still scrutinize and
amend EU-derived laws a great deal more than we would expect. There is,
according to several contributors, no evidence that national executive power
is growing at the expense of legislative power as a result of Europeanization
(although it may grow because of other factors). This point suggests that
the "deparliamentarization hypothesis," according to which national
parliaments are losing their autonomy both vis-A-vis the EU and vis-A-vis
their own executives, is unfounded.
The book is the outcome of a rare collaborative and coordinated
multinational research effort. The authors use a similar research design for
each country case, and they pay a great deal of attention to the challenge of
operationalizing this design in different national contexts and in different
languages. The editors provide a workable and adequate definition for
a Europeanized law as one that explicitly mentions the EU or one of its
institutions or instruments as its origin. Qualitative coding is then used to
check whether the EU reference is meaningful. All national laws are taken
into account over the 1986-2oo8 period. Each chapter of the book is based
on solid, if sometimes repetitive, empirical work.
In addition to the book's important conclusion that the 8o percent
figure is a myth, other findings are worth noting. In all EU member states,
some policy domains exhibit a much greater degree of Europeanization
than others-typically agriculture (where overall, 35 percent of domestic
legislation is EU-derived), banking and finance (with 32 percent of domestic
legislation EU-derived-again, far from the 8o percent figure predicted by
Delors for economics), the environment, and energy (with 30 percent of
domestic legislation EU-derived). However, the impact of the EU on domestic
laws-in areas including social welfare, civil rights, education, public lands,
housing, and defense-is minimal. Not surprisingly, these policy domains
are also the ones in which European institutions (the council of ministers
and parliament) produce very little legislation.
The impressive data collected by the book's contributors show that
legislative output in some countries is generally more Europeanized than
in others. For instance, 35 percent of Spanish laws, but only 14 percent of
French laws, are Europeanized. This discrepancy is puzzling, of course.
The book is a great introduction to the specificities of the legislative process
in different European countries, especially as they pertain to directive
transposition. Contributors take a large variety of idiosyncratic factors into
account in their analyses. Yet the necessary comparative research agenda for
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studying why the EU occupies more room in some national legislatures than
in others is only sketched out. In the concluding chapter, Thomas K6nig and
Lars Mdder focus on the impact of coalition politics and find that coalition
partners are more likely to block the adoption of European regulations when
they fear ministerial drift and costs for legislative review are low-a good
start, but more research should be done to explain differences both across
countries and policy domains.
There are a number of other findings presented in this book that would
be interesting to explore in a future project. For instance, in their French case
study, Sylvain Brouard, Olivier Costa, and Eric Kerrouche note that the acquis
communautaire (the body of EU law) may act like a veto on the possibility of
modifying existing laws that are already compatible with European norms.
The EU would then inhibit legislators rather than force them to act. If that
is true, then the book underestimates the impact of Europeanization, which
may operate through subtle, cognitive means that are harder to observe
empirically. This is one example of the many important research paths
cleared by this commendable book.
Fr6d6ricM6rand/ University of Montr6al
IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST
CanadianForeign Policy and the Department ofForeignAffairs and International
Greg Donaghy and Michael K.Carroll, eds.
Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 20l. 2 6 4pp, $34-95 (paper)
Books on Canadian foreign relations history can't avoid the touchstone figure
of Lester B. Pearson. But where many books assail or endorse "Pearsonian
idealism," In the National Interest makes no bones about it: Pearson was
a realist. The point comes through, for instance, in Heather Metcalfe's
fascinating essay on Canadian national identity and the Department of
External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and International Trade, or DFAIT). "I
can't help feeling," she quotes Pearson as writing during the fervent welcome
given to King George VI as he toured Canada in 1939, "that all the outburst
of Royal and Imperial sentiment which the tour has evoked ... will make
it even more difficult for this country to understand the unsentimentally
nationalist basis of Canada's external policy" (63-4). Pearson's was hard| 1102 | Autumn 2012