The New Machiavelli

Peter Turchin


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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.

Part II here

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Joost Douma

In one of the recent surveys into why people had voted for Trump, the motivation appeared to have been quite complex and more emotional than rational, which – in my view – supports your key criticism. In one of his contio’s Gaius Gracchus warned his audience that every politician had a price in his head and urged everyone to consider whether he was willing to pay it. Sadly concluding that probably no one would follow his advice.

alfred loomis

homo sap. has been following alpha males for a long time now, and there’s plenty of evidence that it will continue, whether from genetic predilection or social habit. and power does corrupt. so machiavelli is a good guide to human activity.
not everyone has to be machivellian to result in ‘war of all against all.’ just needs a few, and more than a few are always available.
and that is why we are following the elite over the cliff. indeed, the presence of trump in the oval office should be a clear demonstration that, in the lack of genuine democracy, usa elects incompetents and worse often enough to be a threat to survival in several ways.
political elitism is killing us, and is not necessary. democracy is possible. but, alas, not very probable. and even the swiss are losing it.

R. N. England

One of the most interesting writers on leader-follower systems (both military and civilian) is Fredrick the Great. No successful leader wrote so much. His output is surprisingly disinterested, in keeping with his view of himself as the first servant of the state. His “Anti-Machiavel” was an early work, but he generally followed its principles in later life. His Academy employed the top-rank mathematicians, Euler and Lagrange. Its president was Maupertuis, who discovered that the earth was not perfectly spherical, but slightly flattened at the poles. Frederick himself was its main history contributor.

Gene Anderson

I haven’t read the book but have read other materials by Mesquita and his team, and agree thoroughly with Peter, except that Peter is being unfair to Machiavelli. M was far more nuanced and certainly wasn’t dumb enough to think people are individual rationalists. Like Peter, I have no idea how the simple individual-rational-choice model can survive after the last 100 years of psychology.

Rod Watkins

One thing that jumped out at me in particular was Peter’s observation that “some…are indeed pure rational…the majority of (the) population is motivated by additional considerations: desire to do good to others or for the society, loyalty, friendship, honor, sacred values, and many more.” Personally I think the majority, or at least the lion’s share, is contained in the “many more.”

On the one hand are those who rationally seek to optimize self interest. As such these people must possess two characteristics; an understanding of what’s in their self-interest and the capacity to rationally pursue that self-interest. From a pure Machiavellian or Randian (as in Ayn) perspective these people will act consistently amoral, not necessarily immoral just coldly rational. They are the Spock’s of society.

Then there are the people who act on what is often perceived as altruistic impulses such as friendship, honor, etc. In reality these people are also acting selfishly, they just value different things. They may be perceived as acting morally or somehow “better” than the amoral rationalists, although in reality they too may be rationally amoral.

But I think the largest single block are those people who are incapable of acting rationally, whether for traditionally selfish or unselfish ends, and can’t even comprehend what is and is not in their self interest, either for the short of long term. As such the choices and decisions these people make have little to no rational foundation. Unfortunately as a group they significantly shape society, and do so in a manner that reflects their inherent disconnect with reality. Worse yet, they collectively engage in two dangerous activities; they vote and they breed. It’s why the rational behavior model provides such a weak foundation upon which to base social institutions, be they political or economic.

Joost Douma

Your remark “they vote and they breed”, reminded me of the following scene:

Alan Hall

That’s a great example of how extreme wealth inequality creates psychological effects, both in the aristocrat and the butler. Much research indicates that it impairs the health of both, but it hurts the butler more.

Peter van den Engel

The imparity not so much involves wealth inequality/ but levels of understanding.
Compare it to Louis XVI, thinking about his problems in the American war with the English, emptying his state coffer (if he personally was at all), which his subjects would not grasp (like the butler)/ while his neglected subjects were the only reason he had an economy in the first place.
So, the conclusion is the imparity hit (hurt) the elite the most/ and not their subjects. Because they got rid of them.

Alan Hall

The inequality in their levels of understanding reflects inequality in their levels of education, which suggests inequality in other areas. But I speak of the health effects of inequality. If you are interested in those: Secular Cycles demonstrates what accompanies and follows periods of extreme wealth inequality: social conflict, state breakdown and often, major epidemics. If you are interested in those:

Peter van den Engel

“Give them cake”,’ as Mary Antoinette supposedly said…


Those who indeed only seek rational self interest are also called sociopaths or psychopaths.

Its telling that in a society where internal cohesion and pro social norms are breaking down, Machiavelli and imitators are popular.


This is a terrible review. Instead of taking on the book (which is excellent) based upon its arguments, you sidestep to some rhetorical trick of comparing it to Machiavelli and rational choice which you assure us, sweepingly, have been totally refuted by untold experts or by you in another book. To be specific, you evade the argument twice over, first by shifting it to a supposed similar argument, second by assuring us this substitute argument is refuted. You prove neither. “Trust me this argument is wrong because it is similar to these arguments and I promise you these are wrong.”

Let me be clear what the book is really about — Incentives matter a lot in politics and hierarchies. They lay out the incentives, the dynamics and the feedback process (in complexity theory we could refer to these as “attractors”). They simplistically lay these attractors out as rules which tend to apply to rulers. Included in their explanation is that even if other factors (friendship, moral constraints, etc) do matter, the incentives will tend to reward competing interests who these matter less for. An altruistic dictator is extremely exposed by less altruistic competitors or his or her subordinates as explained by the dynamics of coalitions.

Using this admittedly oversimplified model, they point out common trends we see in dictators, revolutions, foreign aid, log rolling, gerrymandering, farm subsidies, the resource curse and so on. They also explain why dictatorships differ so much from democracies in public goods. They apply the model not just to government, but to other large organizations such as college boards, CEO’s, and so on. In addition they offer suggested solutions, which include broadening the coalitions, and not providing aid to dictators prior to reforms as you risk subsidizing exploitation.

The book deserves its accolades. It offer immense value to understanding peculiar institutional dynamics and incentives in hierarchies. Anyone not familiar with these arguments and dynamics is impoverished in understanding how the world really does tend to work. It’s explanatory framework is brilliant. I recommend everyone buy the book and read it several times as well as watching the great video.


Watch the video. Everything I wrote was covered in there as well. The point is you didn’t review the book, you dismissed it with rhetorical sleight of hand, hoping your readers who also haven’t read the book trust you.

Do us a favor. Please let us know which of the rules are not attractors within politics. Which are wrong? Why?

Bottom line is this is an extremely rewarding framework to understand politics. Not perfect. Admittedly oversimplified, but most useful frameworks are.


YEARS AGO I put my own updated version of Machiavelli on my website, where it sits unnoticed. “So you want to be an Emperor” There is another side, of course, which interests me more, which produces leaders motivated by concepts of group interest. Like the opposite pole, and reality is the interplay between them. It’s high time we started looking for the sweet spot in between.

Peter van den Engel

Yes, well the theory is based on old political systems, where a small elite could controle the entire money system and made it work through grants. However modern society is evolved into a spread material economy no longer controled by political leaders/ although in some exceptions where all wealth is based on natural recourses, like in the Arab world, this is still the case.
They don’t need democracy for ruling. Thus creating terrorists.
So the grant system still exists, much nearerby than Idi Amin.

The theory also explained democracy grants its own favorite examples/ which is returned into the form of low taxes, to keep it friendly for reelection. It does seem to represent a form of (self) altruism.
However the logic does not work. The theory only proposes it works.
Because the favorites are in the public domain/ it is impossible they represent low taxes.
This is the reason the American health system does not work/ and policy can still say: “Hey, we offer low taxes, so you should be pleased.”
It reveals the theory is entirely based on American bias. It turns out to be non altruistic/ while it proclaims to be altruistic. Without going deeper into the fiscal systems mechanics.

I can understand there is another point to make about political leadership and being Machiavellistic or not: a self chosen advantage point in a political sense/ but those perimeters themselves make no sense anymore. Just because wealth does not sit in this kind of equation anymore.
All Mandela did was to convince his people not to be violant. That indeed is a kind of altruism/ but does not devide wealth in a more proper way. It predicted it was just going to be devided over a new majority. It did lead to unreasonable expropriation of farms formerly owned by caucasians. In that sense you might even call it Machiavallistic/ although it was unintended.


I do think you’re presenting something of a caricature. BdM&S don’t deny that the impact heads of state have on their countries varies widely, the argument is that such variation should best be understood as a response to the political system they find themselves in instead of qualities they possess as individuals. When they say “Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling.” what they mean is that good governance or the general will as such are usually subordinated to maintaining support from key quarters when the priorities conflict, not that they never coincide. They discuss at length situations in which the need to pay supporters can result in good governance (often in democracies and sometimes in non-democracies, according to their account). Also, I’m somewhat curious as to what part of Machiavelli’s statement you disagree with so strongly. How is it all that different from what you previously wrote, “These tyrants were supported by new elites, recruited from the masses of elite aspirants whose quest for elite positions had been frustrated by the established elites.”? And how many examples are there of new rulers who did not reward their followers after coming to power?


On Machiavelli’s political career, to classify him as a “miserable failure” is extraordinarily unfair. He enjoyed a very distinguished career in the Chancery of Florence, during the course of which, among other things, he rejected the use of unreliable mercenaries in the army, and instead staffed its ranks with Florentine citizens. He then led them to a major victory over Pisa in 1509. Now, it is true that he experienced defeat by a Spanish-Papal alliance in 1512 and subsequent dismissal when the regime he was a member of fell, but how exactly was he supposed to have averted this? There is no way a city-state can be expected to stand against a large empire and one if its major allies. It’s like calling someone in the government of Luxembourg a “miserable failure” for having been defeated by Germany. As Peter van den Engel pointed out, he wasn’t even the head of state. Condemning him for being less successful than Ashoka or Frederick II, who both inherited control over vastly larger countries in much more secure positions, is simply absurd.


The overwhelming majority of major figures throughout history have been born to wealthy and politically connected families. This doesn’t change the fact that Machiavelli began his career from a far lower position than Frederick the Great or Ashoka or any other hereditary ruler of a country. To say “his faction lost to another Florentine faction” and leave it at that ignores the role played by the Spanish-Papal alliance in his regime’s downfall. I repeat, “it’s like calling someone in the government of Luxembourg a ‘miserable failure’ for having been defeated by Germany.” Even if we ignore this elephant in the room, one would have to demonstrate that Machiavelli’s actions were what caused his faction’s fall in order to condemn him so harshly. That he failed to obtain a post under the Medici is hardly surprising given his background, and he didn’t really have anything to lose at that point.

I understand the odds Frederick faced during the Seven Years’ War were long, and I’m not denying that his conduct throughout was extremely skillful. At the same time, the odds he faced, long as they were, do not remotely compare to those Florence faced in 1512. A small country in alliance with the British Empire against three larger countries is not the same thing as a city-state against an empire and a major ally. Do keep in mind I’m not arguing that Frederick’s achievements don’t surpass Machiavelli’s but that it’s unfair to call Machiavelli a failure by reference to Frederick. It’s impossible to know how Machiavelli would have done had he been in Frederick’s position, although I would point out that his rejection of mercenaries in the early 1500s was far ahead of its time.

Peter van den Engel

Don’t overestimate the role of Frederick the Great, when he conquered Saxony it was ruled by a king; similar to the Sun King; investing in parties for the elite, with a corrupt tax system and hardly any army at all. It was a piece of cake. The alliences Saxony had as part of the Holy Roman Empire were paper ones.
I presume Peter the Great of Russia provided them with a bigger headache at the time than Frederick.

Peter van den Engel

Basicly Machiavelli was not a ruling politician in his time, but a counceler who later in his life wanted to describe the mechanics of politics how he had observed its behavior. He was thinking like a scientist and f.i. found the paradox that doing evil in politics benefitted the establishment of power more than doing good.
He might have thought this was proving how it should behave, since it was successfull/ but should not be read as an advice he had singlehandedly conceived. It was the observation of what rulers in his days were doing and the difference it made regarding securing their power.
The only thing it proved was that when a body is already functioning, you better chose that side/ than the one of chaos: the protesting mob. Or when something is profitable by extortion, it still is profitable as long as you are in power: it keeps you in power, because without money nobody has any power. Vicious circle.

It represents a brutal thumb of rule, in a one sided money system.
So in general the fact bodies are functioning because you can pay them, does not mean they are functioning well. But it can.
I found it a striking Machiavillian act when Mexican authority hired local drugsgang members for their police force in fighting local drugscrime. Apparently they prefered the uniform/ as opposed to being an outcast of society, and a regular small income as opposed to the chance of becoming a millionair, which never happened.
So is that driven by empathy and altruism? Or pure self interest.
Being part of the group is empathetic and self interested at the same time. Therefore you cannot describe it as driven by self interest. Collective intelligence overlaps the single mind/ but it can make opposite choices.


I am disappointed by this non-review. I read the book in question, and it did not seem to be nearly as bad a book in my estimation, but that is actually irrelevant.

What would be intriguing is if Peter systematically laid out Machiavelli’s empirical model, its assumptions, the evidence refuting or limiting its applicability, and the consequences for political theory.

I did have some problems with the book in that you obviously have authoritarian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaping who did wonders for their countries, while you have political gangsters in democracies like the Nehru-Gandi’s in India who lined their pockets.


Its been a while since I read War and Peace and War. I will have to re-read.


Why not read one of the books of the author of this blog you are giving your opinion to

Michael Smith

Peter – While I agree with much of what you say, and I sympathize with your criticism of the book in question, I must say that @Rojellio is correct: You do not review the book, but merely dismiss it by appealing to first principles and citing your work in another place.


No Peter, you just contradicted two or three minor facts with no material bearing at all on the overall argument.

If you want to show their argument is wrong, you actually need to list out their five key rules (which are really institutional incentives) and illustrate how they tend to be wrong.

These are not reviews of the book, they are rhetorical dismissals of the book designed to bias people who have not read it against it.

Peter van den Engel

To Alan Hall

Yes, that’s the classic thinking error. Material economy basicly is not about education levels but about simply doing: behavior. Anybody can do it, certainly with machines.
Why the money goes upstream is because the literate elite controls the administration. Same thing with the French clergy and milirary elites, who both were not contributing to the material economy. That’s the paradox in the system.
But I am willing and interested in the material you suggested and will come back to you, should it reveal anything I did bot know yet . Thanks.

Peter van den Engel

Alan Hall.

I looked at the TED talk and yes it contains interesting material for thought.
Although it’s things I have evaluated already, never mind it confirms them.

The primary difference between those countries is their economy and cultural belief system. There are countries which evolved out of their economic potential, like the US, England and Norway (although Norway just depends on their oil and therefore is no economic performance, that’s why it remained a ‘socialist’ state), earning their own insurance for illness and everything else concerning taxes. They hate the tax system and do not trust government on average.
Whereas less ‘fortunate’ countries; meaning a smaller market by numbers; decided to become a more equal society because the math did not work for them.

So the paradox is that countries with more economic potential created a more unequal state (of insecurity) leading to more homicides and crime, mental illness/ whereas countries guided by their fiscal state created more equality/ but are more economically vulnarable to decay. Because their labor market is overpriced.
This last trend though has not yet fully reached statistics. So the numbers about trust presented are behind the curve. There certainly are growing numbers specially amongst higher literacy levels of discontent in these ‘equal’ states.

The level of mental balance; happiness; also has an interesting correlation with material economy, I just found out, because it tends to overshoot. It forgets about reality, in some sense. It’s no accident that some of the people I know, who are very intelligent/ were the severest victims of the recent financial crisis. Because either they took to much risk/ or the sector they were working in was too opportune in hindsight, like f.i. printed media, advertising, financial industry, film business.

So there also is an intrinsic relation to material economy; which is basic/ and the level of human imagination, which surpasses that by far. When the basic trust level falls apart/ it backfires on mental health and can even lead to bipolar brain disfunctioning, is my theory backed by social facts as they appear.

The main underlying question of the talk I presume is how to get to better levels of equality.
As I mentioned the imparity is within the system itself: either you are a competing economy and create inequality/ or you are an equal society losing its economic edge.
Neither options are wanted.

There is a solution though. Decouple the fiscal system from economy. That is: you don’t need to inflate labor costs to reach a larger distribution of wealth. So you reach equality/ and still are a healthy competitive economy. It can be done.


I don’t like Machiavellism, but it’s wrong to dismiss Machiavelli’s influential ideas so easily and then deride him by saying “Machiavelli was a miserable failure as a politician.” That’s like dismissing Van Gogh and Gaugin as failed painters, or Clausewitz as a failed general. A person may not like Van Gogh’s art and consider Clausewitz overrated, but they are not judged by the worldly success they achieved during their lifetimes. Although Machiavelli did not aspire to become a ‘prince’, he did achieve a modicum of success during his diplomatic and political career. Then, as it often happens with talented individuals, his fortunes changed because of things beyond his control. And let us remember that he always recognized that contingency, luck, ‘fortuna’ play a very important role in the life of a ‘prince’. The main thing, is that Machiavelli thought should be judged by the content of his writings. In that regard, even those who are not fond of his conclusions (myself included) have to admit that his thought was not only influential, but also that he was an insightful thinker who got many things right. Not bad for a man living in Italy 500 years ago.

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