This is not how democracies should work as for de Mesquita and Smith’s model.
When it comes to actual policy, the US seems to act more like a small coalition government. Which makes sense, if you think that politicians heavily depend on donors to run their campaigns.
It would make sense then that the higher the wealth inequality (gini coefficient) and the more expensive the political campaigns, the less democracies act in favor of the average citizens and the more they act like small-coalition governments (ie.: autocracies).
This does not invalidate “The Dictator’s Handbook’s” theories, but it increases a bit the complexity of the analysis, it adds some exceptions and blurs the lines between “democracies on paper” and “true democracies”.
True democracies then would require politicians to less dependent on powerful and wealthy citizens and, possibly, present less income disparity just to make sure that a few cannot buy policies.
#2. Politics as self-interest only is a limited view and fails to truly understand and appreciate the hues of human nature
Since political analysis based on self-interest are sorely lacking, we need more books like “The Dictator’s Handbook”.
Yet, I believe that limiting ourselves to self-interest only leads to poor understanding and not to a “theory of everything” as the authors’ students call it.
Not considering that people do have pro-social tendencies is a failure to fully understand and appreciate human nature (for more on pro-social innate human tendencies see Ridley, 1996).
It might as well be the case that dictators are self-selecting for selfish dictators’ job while democrats attract a broader spectrum of individuals, including individuals who also want to do some good.
As an example, see the following:
#3. Leaders do have states’ interests in mind (even if for selfish reasons)
The author says that it’s never about countries but about single leaders.
Leaders don’t care about their countries, they care about themselves, they say.
Talking about Russian’s ambitions to restore Russia as a great power make no sense, they say, because it’s not about “Russia”, but all about the leader.
Yet, this statement in my opinion is wrong from a social-psychology point of view.
People do identify with their ingroup and with their countries. And leaders are people.
In social-psychology it’s called the “Social Identity Theory“, and in my guide on how to be great leader I say that all leaders should encourage their group members to identify with their group for the simple reason that most people already have an inborn tendency to do so.
Putin, as many other autocrats, most likely does want his country to be a great power.
One because it gives him more power, second because it reflects great on him, third because that would make him well-liked and everyone wants to be revered and, finally, because he likely is at least a bit nationalistic and he identifies with Russia.
#4. Biased towards democracy: is democracy really always the best form of government? How about democratic tragedy of commons?
The authors seem to reach this conclusion:
Big coalition governments where nominal selectors are also the true selectors, such as democracies, are the best systems to ensure good policy and development
And, in many ways, that’s absolutely true.
Especially if you compare it to your average dictatorship.
Yet, I can see many ways in which democracy, having difficulty with good but unpopular actions, cannot manage to avoid disasters.
The authors themselves admit that austerity does not win votes in democracies. Yet austerity is exactly what you need sometimes.
I think of Greece or of Italy, a country with great potential, but which cannot manage to get out of recession and decrease its debt.
If Italy were a dictatorship, the dictators could introduce the forceful, unpopular in the short-term but good in the long-term policies that the country needs.
Democracies are also prone to tragedy of commons (also see: “game theory bargaining“).
How does democracy cope, for example, with overpopulation if nobody wants a policy for one single child max?
How does democracy cope with environmental preservation if citizens all prefer to pollute?
Democracies can easily fall victims of the tragedy of commons whereas an “enlightened despot” can steer a country towards what’s truly best for them in the long run.
That is exactly what Xiaoping did, and the authors themselves listed him as one of the “despotic heroes”
Xiaoping probably performed for China much better than any democracy could have ever done.
The authors say that good despots can exist, but they end up pursuing the wrong policies because they lack people’s feedback.
However, that is not a convincing argument to me.
Modern despots can have access to plenty of data that average citizens don’t even bother to check before voting.
What about hated democrats and beloved dictators?
“The Dictator’s Handbook” does not expressly say that dictators are disliked.
But the feel is that dictators are disliked by the population, while democrats are more liked and popular.
Yet I think of Vladimir Putin, a rather liked and loved autocrat in Russia. Or even Pope Francis in the Vatican/Catholic Church.
And in most Western democracies the approval ratings of politicians are abysmally low.
This again seems, in my opinion, to fly against the face of the “terrible despots” concept and lend more credibility to the notion that “enlightened despots” are sometimes better than weak democracies.
#5. Unsure on some data, indexes and evidence
There were a few instances where I wasn’t sure about the underlying data or about the indicators used to corroborate the theory.
Is the “resource curse” true?
The author says that “resource rich” countries systematically underperform resource-poor countries.
The author says that “nations with readily extractable resource systematically underperform nations without such resources”.
But it that true?
A few notable exceptions spring to mind, including US, Canada, and Norway.
There has been considerable criticism of the “resource curse” theory, and I am personally not too convinced of how real that curse is.
I think it might be true with dictators, but it’s not necessarily true with democracies.
The authors should have pointed that out a bit more clearly maybe.
Do democracies really tax less?
The authors say that democracies, on average, tax at a lower rate.
They also say they have another book up with all the data and I am eventually going to read that, too.
Still, I would have liked them to at least mention they have data to back their assertions.
There are plenty of exceptions that make me at least doubt that assertion. Think of the Scandinavian countries and many more European countries. But also think of autocratic regimes with very low taxation or, in some cases, even true tax havens (ie.: Dubai).
“Straight road index”
Measuring how straight the roads are to tease out how despotic a government is seemed a bit too convoluted to me.
Not necessarily untrue, but it might be a bit of a stretch. Especially if you don’t take into account geography, population density and wealth.
The authors use earthquakes victims as a proxy for the level of government’s care for its citizens.
That, in turn, would help identify dictatorships (don’t care at all) VS democracies (care).
It makes sense on paper.
Yet, earthquakes are so rare that even democratic leaders should theoretically not care much about protecting their citizens for events which will happen who knows when.
But if we only think in terms of self-interest, democrats also have a strong short-term bias. The authors mention the earthquake in Italy for example, but I know well about it because it was exactly in my region, and the authors fai