The Dictator’s Handbook (Book Review)


This is a somewhat amusing book looking at the differences (or better yet, similarities) between dictatorships and democracies.

Basically, according to the authors, potential political leaders need to worry most about one thing: you can not be a monolithic leader; you will have to keep a certain group of people happy in order to stay in power. How large that essential group, or coalition is, depends on what kind of government you want to form– democracy (large coalition) or dictatorship (small coalition).

In the first chapter, five basic rules are given for leaders to succeed in any system: “1) Keep your winning coalition as small as possible; 2) Keep your nominal selectorate (non-essential supporters) as large as possible; 3) Control the flow of revenue; 4) Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal; 5) Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better.” (If you’ve ever wondered why some governments, like the Cambodian government, don’t crack down on corruption, #5 would be your answer.)

In a dictatorship the coalition is small. It is imperative for the dictator to maintain strict control over the bank accounts so that he, and he alone, will be able to pay off the necessary people who can keep him in power, or take him out (like a military commander for example).

In a democracy the essential group of backers will be much larger, so the option of simply paying them off is much too expensive. Here the leader buys loyalty through programs and policies.

The book uses several real world examples to back the points made. For example, Samuel Doe of Liberia, who, although being an unskilled soldier, managed to assassinate the president and take control of the country.

“Doe had no idea what a president was supposed to do and even less idea of how to govern a country. What he did know was how to seize power and keep it: remove the previous ruler; find the money; form a small coalition; and pay them just enough to keep them loyal. In short order, he proceeded to replace virtually everyone who had been in the government or the army with members of his own small Krahn tribe, which made up only about 4 percent of the population. He increased the pay of army privates from $85 to $250 per month. He purged everyone he did not trust. Following secret trials, he had no fewer than fifty of his original collaborators executed.”
~page 22, chapter 2, “Coming to Power”

Sounds a lot like how the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in the ’70s.

Samuel Doe did not fair well though. He too was taken out of power, tortured (to reveal where all the money was), then cut up, cooked, and eaten. Mmm mm.

Overall I thought it was a decent book. However, I did find it to be over-simplified and too repetitive. I think, with it being nearly three hundred pages long, it could easily be a hundred pages shorter and thus a lot less monotonous.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Find it on Amazon

Update October 2016…

Here’s a good video which lays out the book in under 20 minutes…

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