modern assembly

The Dictator’s Handbook is interesting, and I should like it because it makes a version of what’s basically the “realist egalitarian” case, but it has a few issues that annoy me.

Basically, the idea is that all leader are basically always self-serving.  They want stuff for themselves, but run into a problem because they can’t control a country alone.  So, everything depends on who they gain their support from and how, and the “how“ is generally money.

The result of his argument is about how governments become “better“ as they have to rely on more people, as part of the self-serving desires of their leaders.  A complex modern economy requires free assembly, an educated citizenry, all that stuff.  That can provide an incentive for a leader to encourage that, because it gives the leader a larger amount of money to distribute to himself and the supporters he needs to rule. 

He does a few annoying things though.  In one of the early sections, he talks about with his cynical vision, he’s better than those classic thinkers like Hobbes and Machiavelli.  In truth though, I think he’s limited, particularly with his focus on money. That doesn’t mean his analysis is worthless, money, respect, power, they’re all inter-related and money makes a good lens through which to analyze. But the big issue in focusing on money over power is that money is not zero-sum while power is.  There’s an issue as to whether leader will trade power for money that I think needs more examining, since that’s basically what democratizing is supposed to be. And then there’s the issues that people often will not vote in favor of money for themselves, as the US Democratic party laments, it’s the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” problem. 

Another annoying thing is the “I’m a hard-headed realist, unlike the rest of you softheaded fools“ thing I mentioned in a previous post. I get really skeptical of this sort of framing, I’ve seen it used to justify some things that turned out to be real disasters. One thing that it does is it hides chains of causality.  You can do that by finding the bad event, and then you step through the causal chain until you find the exact point to make the point you want, then you call that as the single cause, when in fact it’s the arbitrary point you chose.  I think it leads you to useless answers.

I also think he understates economic power, he talks about how it’s all about the coalition you need to retain power, but I think he oversimplifies how complicated a problem that is. It’s not just “the electorate“ or even “the winning coalition,“ it’s about the economy, which is a trickier question.  You can say that the people decide, but if the people decide based on employment which is under the control of the rich, then which group is “the winning coalition?“

One thing he seems to dodge more than I’d like is the idea that the nominal ”dictator“ may not actually have that much power.  I see that approached, but I think it needs to be more emphasized.  What needs to be examined is those elites, who they can be and what they want.  I think they need to be considered more when considering paths to democratization.

Overall, I think it’s a viewpoint to consider but I think it’s lacking in several points, and that initial overselling really turned me off.