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Authors: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

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We will see that Bell's story offers a nearly perfect script for how to govern when the hold on office depends on very few people, especially when they are selected from among many. The politicians of Bell intuitively understood the rules of politics. Leaders who follow these rules faithfully truly can stay on top without ever having to do “the right thing” for their subjects. The people governing Bell clung to power for a very long time before probes from outside uncovered their means of holding on to office. As we will see, what works for those at the top usually works against those at the bottom, hence our shock and surprise at headlines of the misdoings of so many in high positions. The way places like Bell are governed (and that is the way most places and most businesses are governed) assure the Bell Bottom Blues.
One important lesson we will learn is that where politics are concerned, ideology, nationality, and culture don't matter all that much. The sooner we learn not to think or utter sentences such as “the United States should do . . . ”or “the American people want . . . ” or “China's government ought to do . . . ,” the better we will understand government, business, and all other forms of organization. When addressing politics, we must accustom ourselves to think and speak about the actions and interests of specific, named leaders rather than thinking and talking about fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare. Once we think about what helps leaders come to and stay in power, we will also begin to see how to fix politics. Politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others. And that surely is the story of Robert Rizzo of Bell, California.
Great Thinker Confusion
As Robert Rizzo's story highlights, politics is not terribly complicated. But by the same measure, history's most revered political philosophers haven't explained it very well. The fact is, people like Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, James Madison, and Charles-Louis de Secondat (that is, Montesquieu), not to forget Plato and Aristotle, thought about government mostly in the narrow context of their times.
Hobbes sought the best form of government. His search, however, was blinded by his experience of the English civil war, the rise of Cromwell, and his fear of rule by the masses. Fearing the masses, Hobbes saw monarchy as the natural path to order and good governance. Believing in the necessary benevolence of an absolute leader, the Leviathan, he also concluded that, “no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissension, to maintain a war against their enemies.”
Taking a bit of liberty with Hobbes's more nuanced philosophy, we must wonder how Robert Rizzo, by Hobbesian lights, could grow so rich when his subjects, the citizens of Bell, were so demonstrably poor.
Machiavelli, an unemployed politician/civil servant who hoped to become a hired hand of the Medici family—that is, perhaps the Robert Rizzo of his day—wrote
The Prince
to demonstrate his value as an adviser. It seems the Medicis were not overly impressed—he didn't land the job. He had, we believe, a better grasp than Hobbes on how politics can create self-aggrandizing practices such as were experienced in Bell half a millennium later. Writing in
The Discourses,
Machiavelli observes that anyone seeking to establish a government of liberty and equality will fail, “unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them 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 ambition. . . .”
Robert Rizzo might have done well to study Machiavelli as the best source of his defense against public opprobrium. He maintained his power for long years by satisfying the ambition for wealth and position of those loyal to him on Bell's city council, and they really were the only people whose support he had to have.
James Madison, a revolutionary trying to bring his brand of politics into power, was, like Hobbes, looking revolution in the face. Unlike Hobbes, however, Madison actually liked what he saw. In
Federalist 10,
Madison contemplated the problem that was to bedevil the citizens of Bell a quarter of a millennium later, “whether small or extensive Republics are most favorable to the election of proper
guardians of the public weal: and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter.”
His conclusion, not easily reached as he was fearful about tyranny of the majority, is close to what we argue is correct although, as always, the devil is in the details and Madison, we believe, fell a bit short on the details of good governance. In describing a republic as large or small, he failed to distinguish between how many had a say in choosing leaders and how many were essential to keeping a leader in place. The two, as we will see, can be radically different.
Madison's view was at odds with that of Montesquieu, who maintained that, “In a large republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions; and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a lesser extent, and of course are less protected.”
Not so in Bell—and in Bell we trust.
For Montesquieu, the Enlightenment, the new Cartesian thinking, and the emerging constitutional monarchy of Britain all combined to stimulate his insightful ideas of political checks and balances. Through these checks and balances he hoped to prevent exactly the corruption of public welfare that the charter city election in Bell foisted on its citizens.
Of course, the option of forming a charter city was motivated,
in theory,
exactly by a quest for checks and balances on the authority of California's state legislature. But the electoral public in the charter city special election was a meager 390 souls, and even in Bell's contested elections before the scandal, fewer than a quarter of registered voters, themselves only a quarter of the city's population, bothered to vote. That's not enough to prevent the very corruption Montesquieu hoped to avoid.
Now there is no doubt that Montesquieu, Madison, Hobbes, and Machiavelli were very clever and insightful thinkers (and surely brighter than us). However, they got an awful lot of politics wrong simply because they were coping with momentary circumstances. They were looking at but a small sample of data, the goings-on surrounding them, and bits and pieces of ancient history. They also lacked modern tools of analysis (which we, luckily, have at our disposal). Consequently, they leapt to partially right, but often deeply
wrong, conclusions. In all fairness to these past luminaries, their shortcomings often have to do with the fact that, besides being bound by their then-present contexts, these thinkers were also caught up in “the big questions”—what the highest nature of man
to be, or what the “right” state of government really is, or what “justice” truly means in political terms. This shortsightedness extends not only to history's legends in political thought, but also to contemporary thinkers like Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and John Rawls—thinkers who someday may be viewed in the same light.
The big questions of how the world
to be are indeed important. But they are not our focus. Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions—these simply don't apply to the view of politics that we'll present in the pages ahead. We do not start with a desire to say what we think ought to be. It is hard to imagine that anyone, including ourselves, cares much about what we think ought to be. Neither do we exhort others to be better than they are. Not that we do not hope to find ways to improve the world according to our lights. But then, we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why. Working out what makes people do what they do in the realm of politics is fundamental to working out how to make it in
interest to do better things.
The modern vernacular of politics and international relations, from balances of power and hegemony to partisanship and national interest, is the stuff of high school civics and nightly news punditry. It has little to do with real politics. And so, you may be delighted—or disappointed—to hear that this particular book of politics is not concerned with any of this. Our account of politics is primarily about what
and why what is, is. In this book, we hope to explain the most fundamental and puzzling questions about politics, and in the process give all of us a better way to think about why the worlds of rulers and subjects, of authorities and rights, of war and peace, and, in no small way, of life and death all work in the ways that they do. And maybe, just maybe, from time to time we will see paths to betterment.
The origins of the ideas developed here came years ago during heated lunchtime discussions between one of the authors of this book—Bruce Bueno de Mesquita—and a coauthor of many earlier works, Randolph M. Siverson (now Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis). While munching on burritos, Randy Siverson and Bueno de Mesquita discussed a rather basic question: What are the consequences for leaders and their regimes when a war is lost?
Oddly, that question had not been much addressed in the copious research on international affairs, and yet surely any leader would want to know
getting involved in a risky business like war what was going to happen to him
it was over. This question hadn't been asked because the standard ideas about war and peace were rooted in notions about states, the international system, and balances of power and polarity, and not in leader interests. From the conventional view of international relations, the question just didn't make sense. Even the term “inter
al relations” presumes that the subject is about
rather than being about what Barack Obama or Raul Castro or any other named leader wants. We so easily speak of United States grand strategy or China's human rights policy or Russian ambitions to restore Russia to great power status, and yet, from our point of view, such statements make little sense.
States don't have interests. People do. Amidst all the debate about national interest, what did President Obama fret about in formulating his Afghan policy? If he did not announce a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan he would lose support from his Democratic—not his national, but his Democratic—electoral base. President Kennedy similarly fretted that if he took no action in what became the Cuban missile crisis, he would be impeached and the Democrats would pay a heavy price in the 1962 midterm election.
National interest might have been on each of their minds, but their personal political welfare was front and center.
The prime mover of interests in any state (or corporation for that matter) is the person at the top—the leader. So we started from this single point: the self-interested calculations and actions of rulers are the driving force of all politics.
The calculations and actions that a leader makes and takes constitute how she governs. And what, for a leader, is the “best” way to govern?
The answer to how best to govern: however is necessary first to come to power, then to stay in power, and to control as much national (or corporate) revenue as possible all along the way.
Why do leaders do what they do? To come to power, to stay in power and, to the extent that they can, to keep control over money.
Building on their lunchtime question about leaders and war, Randy and Bruce wrote a couple of academic journal articles in which they looked at international relations as just ordinary politics in which leaders, above all else, want to survive in power. These articles caught on quickly. Researchers saw that this was a different way to think about their subject, one tied to real people making real decisions—in their own interest—rather than metaphors like states, nations, and systems. (It seems obvious now, but among the dominant realist school of international relations this is still heresy.) But Siverson and Bueno de Mesquita also saw that the theory could be stretched across a bigger canvas. Every type of politics could be addressed from the point of view of leaders trying to survive.
The idea that the canvas was that big was scary. It meant trying to recast everything (or nearly everything) we knew or thought we knew about politics in a single theoretical whole. It was a humbling moment, and Bueno de Mesquita and Siverson felt in need of help. Enter James D. Morrow—now a professor at the University of Michigan but back then a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, where Bueno de Mesquita was also based—and Alastair Smith. And so a foursome was born (sometimes affectionately known as BdM
). Together we wrote a thick, dense, technical tome called
The Logic of Political Survival
, as well as a long list of journal articles, that remain the foundation for this translation of our ideas into an account that we hope anyone can follow, argue with, and maybe even come to accept.
Today the theory behind this body of research has inspired many spin-off studies by us and by other researchers, theoretical expansions and elaborations by us and by others, and some lively debate—and no shortage of controversy as well.
BOOK: The Dictator's Handbook
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