How “The Dictator’s Handbook” can help us reform America

Summary: Here Martin van Creveld reviews one of the most interesting recent books about politics. It is of great relevance as the Second Republic (built on the Constitution) slowly dies. Harsh insights are needed to save it, or perhaps to build a better Third Republic on its ruins.

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
Available at Amazon.

 

Book of the Month
The Dictator’s Handbook:
Why Bad Behavior is
Almost Always Good Politics

By Martin van Creveld.

From his website, 14 September 2017.

Re-posted with his generous permission.

 

Review of The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (2011).

From time to time, as if by some miracle, one has the pleasure of coming across a good book on political science. A book, say, like Kautilya’s The Arthashastra (The Science of Politics) which goes back to the third century BCE. Or Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was written in 1512. Or, to mention a modern example, Edward Luttwak’s 1969 volume, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook. A book whose author does not content himself with trying to answer abstract questions such as what the origins of government are, what it is, why it is needed, what its purpose is, what its elements are, how it has developed through history, how it is constructed, what kinds of government there are, etc. etc. But one that offers practical advice on what is almost the only thing that matters: namely, how to gain as much power as possible and keep it for as long as possible.

The Prince
Useful reading. Available at Amazon.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have written such a book. Right from the beginning, they make it clear that their work is about power, not the glory of God, or morality, or how to improve the lot of the governed. For them (as for George Orwell in 1984, incidentally), the objective of power is power; something which rulers have known and understood since time immemorial, but which philosophers, academics, and assorted do-gooders tend to overlook.

Forget about religion, philanthropy, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity (fraternity!), ideology, community, and similar soft-headed fancies. They exist, if they do, in order to serve power, not the other way around. At best they may adorn it; but only fools believe they form its essence.

As the authors, following Thomas Hobbes, say, the key point is that no one is so strong that two or three others, joining together, cannot overcome him. In other words, no man can govern alone; he, much less often she, needs supporters. Simplifying a little, this means that there only exist two forms of government. In one, which throughout history has been the most common by far, the man at the top must make a relatively small number of key supporters happy in order to keep the majority of people in check. In the other, which historically has been far less common, the benefits of government are distributed among a far larger number of people.

The former is known as autocracy, the latter, as democracy. As Machiavelli, speaking of aristocrats versus commoners, says, government consists of a balancing-act between the two groups. Anyone who forgets that is lost.

Having erected this framework the authors use it, in my view very effectively, in order to answer a whole range of questions. If dictatorships are often poor that is because, by extracting the resources in question, they discourage people from working and producing. If dictatorships have an abysmal human rights record that is not, at any rate not necessarily, because dictators are bad people. It is because, in order to survive, they have to extract as many resources as possible from the majority of the people so as to pay off their supporters. If natural resources-rich dictatorships often have the worst human rights record of all, that is because, controlling the resources in question, the number of supporters they must bribe is even smaller than in other regimes of the same kind.

Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook
Might be useful reading. Available at Amazon.

If dictatorships are bad at coping with natural disasters — as, for example, the military government of Burma was when it allowed over a hundred thousand people to die in the aftermath of a cyclone — then that is because they tend to divert any outside aid they may get to their own supporters. If revolutions devour their children, as the saying goes, then that is because the dictators whom they bring to power fear, often not without reason, that those “children” could use the same tactics as they themselves did.

If democracies rarely fight one another, that is because the people at the bottom — who, under this kind of regime, do have a voice — seldom have much to gain from war. The same consideration also makes democracies wary of casualties; if their rulers do not care for the dead and the injured, at any rate they are forced to put on a pretense, attend funerals, stand to attention, shed crocodile tears, etc.

Yet do not deceive yourself. Democracies are not necessarily peaceful. Precisely by virtue of being democratic, they simply cannot stand the idea that someone does not like them or share their alleged values. As Franklin Lane, who was President Wilson’s secretary of the interior, once put it: “If the torch of liberty fades or fails, ours be the blame.”  {In his speech “The Answer of the Foreign Born”, Independence Day 1918.}

Off with the Kaiser’s head! From ancient Athens through the French Revolution to the USA, there are few things democracies like doing better than beating down on small, weak dictatorships. Just ask Kim Jong un.

Briefly, it is all a question of who supports whom and what resources he or she is allocated in return. Morally speaking, democratic rulers are no better, no less inclined to doing whatever they can to cling to power, than their autocratic colleagues. The one difference is that the former rely on the many to keep the few in check; the latter do the opposite. In return, democrats provide some public goods: such as roads, education, healthcare, and, most important of all, the kind of stable legal framework people need in order to work and to prosper. This basic fact, and not ideology or people’s personal qualities, shapes the nature of the governments they form and lead.

Though oversimplified at times, the volume is a real eye-opener. All the more so because it deals, implicitly if not explicitly, not merely with states but with every kind of hierarchical organization: including churches, corporations, trade unions, and what have you. And all the more so because, in the end, all it deals with are things as they have always been, and are, and will always remain.

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Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW — preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people).

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He has written three books about Israel: Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace, The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, and a biography of Moshe Dayan.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!). Even more so are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

And perhaps most important for us, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describes the political order unfolding before our eyes. Also see this remarkable book: More on War (2016).

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir by one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

For More Information

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