In the first part of my critique of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (BDM&S), I slammed the theoretical foundations of their argument. The book also has a lot of empirical content, and in Part II I want to talk about that.
The basic approach taken in the book is anecdotal. It’s not a substitute for rigorous analysis because of the ever-present danger of “cherry-picking”—selecting only the anecdotes that support one’s pet theory, while studiously ignoring any counter-examples (see also Technical Note at the end). But a series of well chosen and well presented illustrations of the theoretical ideas in the book from history, politics, and business could make for an enjoyable reading.
Unfortunately, BdM&S selection of examples exhibits an extreme form of cherry-picking, in fact even going beyond that, when they make out examples supporting their theory “from whole cloth.” For example, did you know what was the cause of the Russian Revolution? It turns out that Czar Nicholas II “foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I. … With vodka banned, his revenue diminished sharply. .. Soon Nicholas was no longer able to buy loyalty. As a result, his army refused to stop strikers and protesters.” This is a remarkable story; unfortunately it has nothing to do with the real causes of the Russian Revolution (if you are interested in details, see Chapter 10 of our Secular Cycles).
Another new historical fact that I gleaned from The Dictator’s Handbook was that “Kerensky’s revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1917.” Of course, it was not “Kerensky’s revolutionaries” but Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and the storm of the Winter Palace was not in February, but in October (old style). If the authors know history so poorly, why didn’t they employ a fact-checker?
These are just two examples out of many more. But more important is the extreme form of cherry picking that BdM&S practice in The Dictator’s Handbook. They only give examples of leaders behaving corruptly (by the way, this is the same criticism that Frederick the Great of Prussia leveled against Machiavelli in Anti-Machiavel).
Frederick the Great of Prussia as Crown Prince (1739), about the same time when he wrote Anti-Machiavel. Source
The very first example with which the book starts deals with one Robert Rizzo, who was city manager of Bell, California. There is no question that Bell was an extremely corrupt individual. In fact, he was the highest paid city manager in the entire US! I think it wouldn’t be unwarranted to conclude that Rizzo was in the top 1 percent, or even top 0.1 percent of the most corrupt American city managers. But what about the rest of them?
Remember that the main postulate of the BdM&S theory is that all politicians (as well as all business leaders; in fact all people) are only “motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.” To illustrate this general idea with an individual selected from the top 1 percent of the corruption distribution, and not to balance it with a discussion of how typical this behavior is, is intellectually dishonest.
Now, I am not a starry eyed idealist. I know full well that there is plenty of corruption and self-dealing in our Republic. There are lots of egotistical people. It’s even quite possible that there is a selection process that ensures that the fraction of egomaniacs and narcissists among the political and business leaders increases as one goes up the hierarchy (although I’d like to see some data on that). Nevertheless, not all leaders are like that.
As an example, let’s consider such obvious example of prosocial behavior as volunteering for the army when your country is at war. Of course, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would be fine examples for the BdM&S theory. But think about the previous generation, which Robert Putnam called the Long Civic Generation. Jack Kennedy fought in World War II, and his older brother, Joseph Jr, was killed in action in 1944.
George W.’s father, George H.W. Bush, was a naval aviator whose plane was shot down by the Japanese, also in 1944.
Shipmates of the submarine USS Finback rescue Bush Source
I return to my main critical point: people are different–some selfish others prosocial; and so are politicians. It is not surprising that The Dictator’s Handbook is so popular—our current generation of politicians may easily be the most miserable one in American history (although Gilded Age politicians could have been even more corrupt). What we need is a theory that would help us understand why there is variation between leaders, and why there is change with time: some generations of leaders behave more prosocially, others are more corrupt. Due to its theoretical and empirical flaws, BdM&S’s book does not advance us towards such an understanding.
Technical Note: Bueno de Mesquita and colleagues have also published a 2003 volume, The Logic of Political Survival. That book, among other things, presents a statistical analysis of predictions from the selectorate theory with Polity IV data. Unfortunately, their analysis suffers from fatal flaws, in particular, because they used a bizarre residualization procedure. In an article published in American Political Science Review, Kevin Clarke and Randall Stone show that this procedure leads to omitted variable bias. When the data are reanalyzed properly, as Clarke and Stone did, most of their important findings don’t survive.