(2-minute read) Want to better understand why democracy is good and effective? Learn about autocracy.

Despite a fear-provoking title, this book did a great job shedding some light on the power of rulers in both autocratic and democratic systems. Authors, Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith drew an insightful conclusion that, the political landscape for leaders depends on three key groups of people:

  • the nominal selectorate (“interchangeables”)
  • the real selectorate (“influentials”)
  • the winning coalition (“essentials”)

Democracies have much larger winning coalition than dictatorships. Dictators’ survival relies on whether they can provide the private goods for their winning coalition – this helped to better understand why the dictators of the world can care less about their citizens (“interchangeables” or even the “influentials”).

The authors outlined five rules of political survival dictators “should follow”:

  • Rule 1: Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures.
  • Rule 2: Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced.
  • Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy.
  • Rule 4: Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Remember, your backers would rather be you than be dependent on you. Your big advantage over them is that you know where the money is and they don’t. Give your coalition just enough so that they don’t shop around for someone to replace you and not a penny more.
  • Rule 5: Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. The flip side of rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your “friends” will be gunning for you. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow you, so don’t worry about them. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving you in deep trouble.

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