One of my long-term interests is in the dynamics of leader-followers systems. Large-scale societies and other large groupings of people (including corporations) cannot be purely egalitarian. As I’ve written in another post, humans are not ants.
We must have leaders to organize large-scale cooperation. Inevitably, there will be elites (in the neutral sociological sense: simply a small proportion of the population who concentrates social power in their hands) and commoners (the rest of the population). The big question is how do (some) human organizations avoid, or mitigate (to a greater or lesser degree) the iron law of oligarchy – one of the most fundamental sociological laws (put simply, power corrupts).
Thus I looked to reading The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith with great anticipation. I had an inkling that I would disagree on much with the authors, but I was looking forward not to agree, but to learn.
I was mistaken. The book fails, and fails badly, on both theoretical and empirical grounds. It’s so bad, I almost decided not to review it. However, it has been enormously successful. It sold a lot of copies, and garnered more than 200 reviews on the Amazon, most of them glowingly positive (average rating 4.6 out of 5). It also inspired a very popular info-video by CGP Grey (over 6 million views).
Thus, I think it becomes my public duty to explain why the book is bad.
One of the few points in the book, with which I agree, is that our job as social scientists is to study how the world really works, not how we wish it worked, or as BdM&S say in the beginning of the book, “the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why.”
In the last chapter, the authors say, “After the past nine chapters of our cynical—but we fear accurate—portrayal of politics…” Cynical, yes. Accurate? Far from it.
The theory proposed by BdM&S is a very simple, even naïve, version of the rational-choice model so favored by economists and political scientists in the twentieth century. As the authors say early on in the book, “politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.”
It’s as though the book was written not in 2011, but thirty years ago, before the massive tsunami of evidence showing that this is not true at all.
People are different. Some (20-30% in most large-scale societies) are indeed pure rational actors who only maximize their personal utility expressed in purely materialistic terms. But the majority of population is motivated by additional considerations: desire to do good to others or for the society, loyalty, friendship, honor, sacred values, and many more.
The theory propounded by BdM&S, then, is pure Machiavelli, which they acknowledge by quoting him approvingly. Anyone seeking to become a ruler must give followers “castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambitions.”
I have debunked this theory at length in War and Peace and War, so I won’t do it here. What is startling is to see this bankrupt theory pushed so vigorously by seemingly competent academics. How could you possibly ignore I don’t know how many thousands of articles in experimental economics that have swept away the naïve, stripped-down version of the rational-choice theory?
You probably think I have presented a caricature of BdM&S’s theory. Not at all! Check the book, or watch CGP Grey’s info-video, which is a very accurate statement of what the book says. Here’s another direct quote: “Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling.”
Just about the only elaboration of Machiavelli is BdM&S’s division of followers (a population of a country, or people working for an organization) into essentials, influentials, and interchangeables. If you are interested, read about it in this Wikipedia article—I don’t see the point of discussing it as the overall theory doesn’t make sense to me, because of its bankrupt model of human nature.
Now, I would be the first one to admit that there are a lot of dictators, democratic politicians, CEOs of big corporations, and even leaders of ostensibly charitable organizations who are reasonably well described by the Machiavelli model. But not all leaders are like that. We know empirically that leaders are a mixed lot. Some, like Idi Amin, are really close to the Machiavelli end, while a few are closer to—let’s say—the Gandhi/Mandela end. And most are in between. Why do we see such heterogeneity is a very interesting question, and I will talk about it in Part II.