The New Machiavelli, Part II

Peter Turchin


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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.

POF/PSF/PT109-1 Lt.(jg) John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109 in the South Pacific, 1943. Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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.


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alfred loomis

when it becomes generally known that public officers are corrupt, the people assume all are. so it doesn’t require that all be corrupt, to dissolve social bonds.
any government that requires secrecy in the conduct of its affairs will certainly be corrupt, as the omnipresent opportunity will be seized by some. this is why only democracy has any chance of maintaining social cohesion, for the necessity of public administration of affairs removes the opportunity to sin.

Peter van den Engel

I believe most political leaders are created by the evolutionary state their environment is involved in, providing them with the kind of energy information related to it.
Of course the second technological revolution in the second half of the previous century provided an easy template for politicians to be prosocial, because the system itself was progressive. They did not invent it.
In the current state this has inverted; also due to misunderstanding economic dynamics; so politicians do not control it anymore: it controls itself.
The reason why leaders like Mandela or Gandhi are mostly perceived as prosocial is because they fully depended on their people: their democracy; to get to the next level/ while other politicians believe it depends on their industry or their military apparatus. Which presented itself as logical at the time.
Because evolution tends to be related to inverted consequences, it is also impossible for politicians to switch camps, when they already preside in one of them.
The general problem with BdM&S and Machiavelli is tunnel vision; you might call it cherry picking in the inverted meaning of it; which depends on a bias: a narrow belief set, explaining some detail/ but not accounting for the whole, so the whole is ill understood.


If policy is cumulative over time, does the existence of non-rotten apples matter? In practice almost nobody substantially reverses the policies of their predecessors, especially when it comes to things like spending on various special interest groups. Is there a practical way for these idealist politicians to win in the long-term?

Aidan Barrett

It’s an interesting point you bring up regarding how much more prosocial American elites were during “The Long Civic Generation” because they seemed, somewhat ironically, much more patrician in the era of falling income inequality. On the Republican side, it was dominated by figures like George Romney (father of Mitt Romney), William Scranton(son of a wealthy businessman), John Lindsay (son of a wealthy banker and from whom the term “limousine liberal” is derived), Nelson Rockefeller (whose very name evokes dynastic wealth), and Bush Sr. for that matter (another son of a Wall Street financier and a New England blueblood). The Democrats, meanwhile had the Kennedys (similar background to the Bushes), Adlai Stevenson (from Bloomington, Illinois’ upper class), many of whose followers looked scornfully on Johnson and Nixon, who came from more humble roots.

There has certainly been an elite degeneration since then. For example, George Romney spent his business career as the long-time head of the American Motors Corporation, a highly productive enterprise that provided secure employment and benefits to millions of non-elite Americans. For his political career, he later served as the respected Governor of Michigan, ran for president in 1968 (It’s largely forgotten today that he was expected to the be the Republican nominee that year before the 1967 Detroit riots), and called the American concept of, “rugged individualism…nothing but a political banner to cover up greed”. Mitt Romney spent his business career as a “venture capitalist” who preyed on small companies and sold them for fire-sale prices and during his political career scornfully described 47% of Americans as dependent moochers who paid no income tax and famously said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” And don’t even get me started on the similar shift in the Bush family!

Evidently, this shift must have started with the rise of the nouveux riche “elite aspirants” as you call them. They always seem to be to more ardent opponents of government policies aimed at co-operation for the more broadly distributed national good. One can certainly see this in Anglophone countries with the shift to greater income inequality, which corresponded with “elite overproduction”. In Britain, the right in the more egalitarian mid-Twentieth Century was dominated by literal aristocrats Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Hume. The rise of the 1980s nouveau riche was headed by greengrocers’ daughter Margaret Thatcher. Maverick film director Adam Curtis has an interesting documentary on this process called The Mayfair Set on how the old co-operative “Captains of Industry”, who supported eachother and much of Britain’s population had their industries plundered by the nouveux riche “asset strippers” (in America known as “corporate raiders”). The nouveux riche of the 1980s loved to describe forces that limited their wealth as vestiges of patrician snobbery (Rupert Murdoch was particularly fond of this).

Certainly interesting don’t you think?

Aidan Barrett

Well, that’s ultimately the issue…the fact that wealth is siphoned off to a growing elite rather than a small elite. To suggest a reversal sounds almost reactionary. It’s unlikely that cities with have thousands of angry protestors shouting, “What do we want? A small, patrician elite! When do we want it…”

Peter van den Engel

Imagine that 🙂
No, the real issue is the first wave, including people like Henry Ford and other industry leaders, was creative expansion and banking/ wile the second wave was about creative destruction (Friedman) and accounting, destructing industries.
It does not concern social upward mobility per se/ although you could argue they introduced the new economic theory which was mostly about accounting and replaced old industry leaders. Because they were old fashioned.
Basicly it was mostly related to the economic momentum and new theory.
Although it also led to broader management layers in general of people costing more, pondering about what workers should do, but hardly ever leading to more productive solutions.
So much for boyscout theory about keeping the leading elite small.
Well, the paradox in evolution is without making mistakes you’ ll never have the ability to learn.

Aidan Barrett

That’s certainly true. Another name for the shift you described is going from an “activity-centred” model to an “accumulation-centred” model.

I was speculating off of Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction. A certain degree of elite competition is absolutely necessary to weed out corrupt, inconpentant, or unproductive elites. Elite overproduction, by contrast, intensifies conflict by making elite aspirants increasingly disgruntled making them focus on increasingly shifty, fradulent, and, above all, short-term means of wealth accumulation



You are still totally missing the point if the book. The authors are quite aware that people have different motivations, values and interests. The point is that the system dynamics work against these.

Let me give an illustration of how dynamics work. Let us say that an employer wants to pay his workers three times as much money as the market clearing wage (three times more than necessary to get someone else absolutely equally good, conscientious, loyal and skilled). There is no iron force stopping this. However, the market dynamic will place this employer at a competitive disadvantage with other employers paying one third as much in wages. Wages are a big part of most businesses cost structure, so it will be reflected in substantially higher prices. Thus, this business will tend, over times to be replaced by those paying the market wage. The system dynamics (in complexity theory what are called “attractors”) is toward paying the market rate, not above or below.

Their 5 rules are simply spelling out, in a simplistic and easy to follow way, what these system dynamics are. These include keeping the winning coalition as small as possible, keep the interchangeables as large as possible, control the flow of revenues, pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal, and beware taking money from key supporters to enhance general welfare.

Another way to think of these as winning longer term strategies in game theory. Players are welcome to try different strategies, but doing so places once at a serious disadvantage or handicap to one playing by these rules.

They carefully delineate what these rules are, why they tend to be dominant strategies, what the ramifications are in dictatorships, democracies and other organizations, how to counteract them institutionally, and why we would want to do so.

This is not a handbook on how leaders should lead, it is a warning on how leaders are incentivised to lead by the system, and how we can change institutional parameters to mitigate these negative effects.

Honestly, I don’t think you are groking what this book is about. If you did, you would explain which of these attractors or dynamics are wrong, rather than discussing irrelevant date errors in their examples and go on to irrelevant points about military service.



I will divide my answer into separate comments to make this manageable.

“1. Could you please point me to a specific page where the authors say “that people have different motivations, values and interests”? On the contrary, in many places they insist that everybody only cares for their selfish materialistic benefits.”

So now I am the one reviewing the book? Ok!

Let us start with P 106 “yes, the world has produced wise, well-intentioned leaders even among those who depend on few essentials, but it neither produces a lot of them nor does it ensure that they have good ideas about how to make life better for others.”


108 “Leaders who spend on public welfare at the expense of their essentials are courting disaster.” [implying that they do exist]

127 “Everyone likes to be liked, and there is no reason to think that the powerful have anything against being beloved and honored by their people. Indeed, it could be the case that there are many candidates for high office who pursue power with the intention of being benevolent leaders. The problem is that doing what is best for the people can be awfully bad staying in power.”

Page 156 on “civic minded well intentioned people” and on what they call the” exemplars.”

The sub chapter on Caesar (who they suggested meant well in some ways)

Page 252 and the political reality of attempting to do well without a coalition and how different groups want different, competing things.

I could go on, but these are the major points. If your criticism is that they oversimplify the issue (a point I have repeatedly made already) or that they paint everything too black and white, then I would agree. I would also agree these are probably better referred to as attractors or dynamics than “rules”.* But their basic point on the incentives and selection processes is right on. I respectfully challenge you to take on these 5 rules and share which do not apply to politics.

*Rules risks implying they are normative “oughts”. They are not, though you appear to misread it this way. The authors’ point is that the rules lead to perverse effects, and must be countered if we care about large scale welfare.


2. “It’s a great tragedy for theorists that ugly facts slay a beautiful theories.”

To the extent you criticize that the book as being supported via anecdotes and generalizations, I would agree. It was written for a popular audience. But to undermine their theories with minor factual errors (I have pointed out more factual errors in your review than you have in their book so far), is pretty weak. It is like saying General Relativity is wrong because Einstein put the wrong month on his paper, or misspelled gravity. In addition, I am pretty sure one of your “factual disagreements” is actually a clash of theories, your vs theirs and you assume yours is correct. Could be both are partially correct, or neither.

If you want to contradict the core ideas of the book, you probably need to address the 5 rules and point out how and or why they are wrong. That is the foundation of the book. You are avoiding the foundation.

That is all for now, but I can address your other points tomorrow.

Charlie Starkie

Perhaps you stumbled upon this blog while searching for BdM&S. You seem to be unaware of the Professor’s research and books on structural demographic theory, secular cycles etc. but well-versed in the contents of their headline-grabbing book titles. Each to his own. Had your intention been to elucidate, it would be of interest and laudable whereas your expostulatory, patronising and ill-informed criticism is execrable.


How rude and presumptuous of you. I’ve been commenting on this blog routinely for years. I have been reading Turchin’s books for close to a decade and still consider Ultrasocial one of the best books of the year.

Unlike most people on this blog, I actually read the book being reviewed. Have you read it? If so, let me know where my criticism of Peter’s review goes astray. Really. Time to step up to the table, Charlie.

I will start with the same questions I keep asking Peter…. which of the five rules is wrong, and why?


This theroy is just naive rationalism which has a fundamental problem with explaining cooperation.

Please read one of Peter Turchins books or papers


I have between reading his books and papers and blog since at least 2010. I’ve been commenting on this site for years. Are you sure you actually read the reviewed book or at least listened to the simplified (even a child could follow it) video? If so, please share where it goes wrong.

I didn’t think so.


If you have read them you havent understood the core arguments.

The assumptions form the book you posted essentially assume that people are only motivated by rational self interest and materialistic gain, and there it goes wrong.


You are taking Turchin’s word for this. Reread my total repudiation of this in my June 10th comment above. Read the books before commenting.


The main argument of this post, with the exception of the note at the end, is essentially a repetition of the previous one. Basically, since examples of prosociality for its own sake exist, any theory which approaches events from a rational choice/game theory perspective is inherently fatally flawed. However, no social theory yet devised can or should be expected to explain everything with perfect accuracy.

BdM&S et al replied to Clarke and Stone. “Morrow, J., De Mesquita, B., Siverson, R., & Smith, A. (2008). Retesting Selectorate Theory: Separating the Effects of W from Other Elements of Democracy. The American Political Science Review, 102(3), 393-400.” Now, I personally do not possess enough proficiency with statistical analysis to judge which side has the upper hand, so there isn’t a firm verdict in my mind one way or the other on the merits of selectorate theory from a statistical perspective.


Its not pro prosociality for its own sake, its prosociality to increase group fitness


I meant “for its own sake” as opposed to the individual in question acting in response to incentives in accordance with a game theoretical framework.

Peter van den Engel

In response to Aidan Barrett.

Yes, the first centre is progressive and the second regressive. This describes the natural chronology of the evolution process.
Short term objectives is also created by the accounting system itself, because you need to report results each month or so, so it’s not just social psychology.
The reversal in this case was sort of related to the father/ son dynamic, so it did not lead to elite infighting. It was a natural take over of ideas.
It was not so much the result of hightened competition within elites/ but a natural take over of another type of efficiency.
Competition within elites is healthy. It is also related to a higher degree of literacy which is evolving overall and the fact capital is no longer attached to a minority of owners. On the other hand wealth accumulation because of system dynamics still applies as an end result.
So there are two opposites at play: accountancy leading to lower wages/ in order to accumulate more wealth.


If you really read those books and write what you write you have ubterstood nothing about its core arguments, I suggest a re read.

John Strate

I agree with Turchin. The narrow “public choice” view of leaders, elected public officials, and non-elected public officials is not supported by the evidence. For example, local managers as agents are not narrowly self-interested. They pursue and try to find balance among a number of public service values including effectiveness, efficiency, equity, accountability, transparency, participation, and representation. Most do their best to adhere to a code of ethics. Some will resign when asked by their principals to engage in illegal or unethical behavior. When there is corruption at the local level, it is usually due to illegal and unethical behavior by the mayor, elected council members, and political appointees. Cherry picking is not the way to go. In politics and policy making, compelling narratives are often more persuasive than systematic evidence (the narrative policy framework).

Peter van den Engel

John Strate

That portrays a reasonable equation. However you should not forget politicians; and people in general; are subconsciously cherry picking all the time.
It is not that cherry picking or tunnel vision should or can be expelled all together, because reality consists of at the same time; potentially opposed; distributions, each of witch involving their own truth. The overall question is which of them where and when are prevailing ones.

Two general examples of that for instance are, that the financial system is supposed represent natural law/ while it contains very serious natural physics flaws: misunderstandings.
It is like suggesting astrology is a correct natural physics system because the mathematics it uses is correct adding and subtracting.

Another example is discrimination. The 50/50% job fulfillment between men and women can be turned into law/ however within levels of knowledge efficiency it cannot be predicted as such, since either more men or more women are better fit for the job, so the law is not reasonable/ but unreasonable. Something Jordan Peterson although accused of sexism protested against, suggesting politicians are idiots.

There are perhaps some parallels with what is discussed in the book, however it never gets to that level of understanding, because it suggests there should be only one truth.

The problem with current political systems in general I believe is electing only once in four years and a restricted parliament will never be able to be efficient, because it lacks a better referee system. That’s why I am pro (more) direct democracy/ while current establishment has a directly opposed opinion: it should be restricted to a small elite (whether this prevails infighting is opposed to the higher chance of taking the wrong decisions).

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