How to be a dictator
Jan 1st 2012, 15:23 by A.B. | LONDON
ALASTAIR SMITH is professor of politics at New York University. The recipient of three grants from the National Science Foundation and author of three books, he was chosen as the 2005 Karl Deutsch Award winner, given biennially to the best international-relations scholar under the age of 40. He is co-author of “The Dictator’s Handbook: How Bad Behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics” (2011).
To whom do your guidelines apply?
Everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you are a dictator, a democratic leader, head of a charity or a sports organisation, the same things go on. Firstly, you don’t rule by yourself—you need supporters to keep you there, and what determines how you best survive is how many supporters you have and how big a pool you can draw these supporters from.
Do they actually have to support me, or can I just terrify them into supporting me by threatening them with death?
No, they absolutely have to support you on some level. You can’t personally go around and terrorise everyone. Our poor old struggling Syrian president is not personally killing people on the streets. He needs the support of his family, senior generals who are willing to go out and kill people on his behalf. The common misconception is that you need support from the vast majority of the population, but that’s typically not true. There is all this protest on Wall Street, but CEOs are keeping the people they need to keep happy happy—the members of the board, senior management and a few key investors—because they are the people who can replace them. Protesters on Wall Street have no ability to remove the CEOs. So in a lot of countries the masses are terrified but the supporters are not.
What about Stalin? Even his inner circle was terrified.
Well, the brilliance of the Soviet regime was not just that you relied on few people, but that there were lots of replacements. In a tsarist system you have to rely only on aristocrats, but in a Soviet system everyone can be your supporter. This puts your core circle on notice that they are easily replaced. That, of course, made them horribly loyal. The Mob are very good at this.
Suggested viewing: “On The Waterfront” (1954)
This sounds typically mammalian to me—just groups of gorillas with a silverback?
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.
Suggested reading: “Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policy” by Robert Bates (2005)
Okay. So, I have a small group of rewarded cronies and a highly taxed population. Now what?
Don’t pay your supporters too much! You don’t want them saving up and forming their own power base. Also, don’t be nice to the people at the expense of your coalition. A classic example is natural disasters. Than Shwe was the ruler of Burma when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, and he did nothing to help the people. The Generals didn’t warn anybody; though they knew it was coming, they provided virtually no emergency protection. He sent the army in to prevent the people from leaving the flooded Delta areas. He was the perfect example of a leader who never made the mistake of putting the people’s welfare above himself and his coalition.
But what if you really are trying to work for the common good? Is there no way of doing that?
None. If you’re working for the common good you didn’t come to power in the first place. If you’re not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don’t come to power.
What if you’re Lech Walesa?
I’m pretty certain he had his own political power base. He wanted to make society more inclusive. This is always the battle cry of revolutionary leaders. When they get into power they change their tune. The real question is what stops politicians from backsliding once they get in? Typically, it’s that the country is broke and the only way you can get people to work is by empowering them socially, but once you do that it becomes hard to take powers back from them. Broke countries are the ones that end up having the political reforms that make them nice places with good economic policy in the long run. Places where there is oil, like Libya, have a very low chance of having democracy. The leaders don’t really need the people to pay the bills of their cronies, because they have oil.
Suggested reading: Anything by Ryszard Kapuściński, a Soviet Polish journalist
Surely Google and Facebook aren’t run like this?
Absolutely they are. All corporations are run like this. The bonuses are handed out to the people who determine the fate of the CEO. It’s a tiny number of people—ten to 20. There are very few shareholder revolts that work. Most leaders are deposed internally. This is why corporations pay huge bonuses.
Don’t I need a cult of personality for my dictatorship?
That’s window dressing. It’s useful in identifying whose side people are on. If you act crazy and the people tell you you’re crazy then they’re not as loyal as you might think. My co-author, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and I have a very cynical view, but we think cynicism doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s not possible to reform a system by imploring people to do the right thing. You have to know how it works. Dictators already know how to be dictators—they are very good at it. We want to point out how they do it so that it’s possible to think about reforms that can actually have meaningful consequences.