Using this foundation, we look at politics, the choices of public policies, and even decisions about war and peace as lying outside of conventional thinking about culture and history. It also means that we
put ideas of civic virtue and psychopathology aside as central to understanding what leaders do and why they do it. Instead, we look at politicians as self-interested louts, just the sort of people you wouldn't want to have over for dinner, but without whom you might not have dinner at all.
The structure of the book is simple. After outlining the essentials of ruling in Chapter 1, each subsequent chapter will probe a specific feature of politics. We'll assess why taxes are higher in many poor countries than in rich countries; or why leaders can spend a fortune on the military and yet have a weak and almost useless army when it comes to the national defense. Together, the chapters will detail how the political logic of political survivalâthe rules to rule byâconnects dots of political consequence across the widest canvas imaginable, deepening our understanding of the dynamics of all rulers and their populations. It is because of this capacity to “connect the dots” that many of our students have called our list of rules to rule by the “Theory of Everything.” We are content to codify it simply as “The Dictator's Handbook.”
We fully admit that our view of politics requires us to step outside of well-entrenched habits of mind, out of conventional labels and vague generalities, and into a more precise world of self-interested thinking. We seek a simpler and, we hope, more compelling way to think about government. Our perspective, disheartening though it may be to some, offers a way to address other facets of life than just government. It easily describes businesses, charities, families, and just about any other organization. (We're sure many readers will be comforted to have confirmation that their companies really are run like tyrannical regimes.) All of this may be sacrilege to some, but we believe that, in the end, it's the best way to understand the political worldâand the only way that we can begin to assess how to use the rules to rule by to rule for the better. If we are going to play the game of politics, and we all must from time to time, then we ought to learn how to win the game. We hope and believe that is just what we all can take away from this book: how to win the game of politics and perhaps even improve the world a bit as we do so.
The Rules of Politics
HE LOGIC OF POLITICS IS NOT COMPLEX. IN FACT, it is surprisingly easy to grasp most of what goes on in the political world as long as we are ready to adjust our thinking ever so modestly. To understand politics properly, we must modify one assumption in particular: we must stop thinking that leaders can lead unilaterally.
No leader is monolithic. If we are to make any sense of how power works, we must stop thinking that North Korea's Kim Jong Il can do whatever he wants. We must stop believing that Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or Genghis Khan or anyone else is in sole control of their respective nation. We must give up the notion that Enron's Kenneth Lay or British Petroleum's (BP) Tony Hayward knew about everything that was going on in their companies, or that they could have made all the big decisions. All of these notions are flat out wrong because no emperor, no king, no sheikh, no tyrant, no chief executive officer (CEO), no family head, no leader whatsoever can govern alone.
Consider France's Louis XIV (1638â1715). Known as the Sun King, Louis reigned as monarch for over seventy years, presiding over the expansion of France and the creation of the modern political state. Under Louis, France became the dominant power in Continental Europe and a major competitor in the colonization of the Americas. He and his inner circle invented a code of law that helped shape the
Napoleonic code and that forms the basis of French law to this day. He modernized the military, forming a professional standing army that became a role model for the rest of Europe and, indeed, the world. He was certainly one of the preeminent rulers of his or any time. But he didn't do it alone.
The etymology of
may be “rule by one,” but such rule does not, has not, and cannot exist. Louis is thought famously (and probably falsely) to have proclaimed,
L'etat, c'est moi:
the state, it is me. This declaration is often used to describe political life for supposedly absolute monarchs like Louis, likewise for tyrannical dictators. The declaration of absolutism, however, is never true. No leader, no matter how august or how revered, no matter how cruel or vindictive, ever stands alone. Indeed, Louis XIV, ostensibly an absolute monarch, is a wonderful example of just how false this idea of monolithic leadership is.
After the death of his father, Louis XIII (1601â1643), Louis rose to the throne when he was but four years old. During the early years actual power resided in the hands of a regentâhis mother. Her inner circle helped themselves to France's wealth, stripping the cupboard bare. By the time Louis assumed actual control over the government in 1661, at the age of twenty-three, the state over which he reigned was nearly bankrupt.
While most of us think of a state's bankruptcy as a financial crisis, looking through the prism of political survival makes evident that it really amounts to a political crisis. When debt exceeds the ability to pay, the problem for a leader is not so much that good public works must be cut back, but rather that the incumbent doesn't have the resources necessary to purchase political loyalty from key backers. Bad economic times in a democracy mean too little money to fund pork-barrel projects that buy political popularity. For kleptocrats it means passing up vast sums of money, and maybe even watching their secret bank accounts dwindle along with the loyalty of their underpaid henchmen.
The prospect of bankruptcy put Louis's hold on power at risk because the old-guard aristocrats, including the generals and officers of the army, saw their sources of money and privilege drying up. Circumstances
were ripe to prompt these politically crucial but fickle friends to seek someone better able to ensure their wealth and prestige. Faced with such a risk, Louis needed to make changes, or else risk losing his monarchy.
Louis's specific circumstances called for altering the group of people who had the possibility of becoming members of his inner circleâthat is, the group whose support guaranteed his continued dignity as king. He moved quickly to expand the opportunities (and for a few, the actual power) of new aristocrats, called the
noblesse de robe
. Together with his chancellor, Michel Le Tellier, he acted to create a professional, relatively meretricious army. In a radical departure from the practice observed by just about all of his neighboring monarchs, Louis opened the doors to officer ranksâeven at the highest levelsâto make room for many more than the traditional old-guard military aristocrats, the
. In so doing, Louis was converting his army into a more accessible, politically and militarily competitive organization.
Meanwhile, Louis had to do something about the old aristocracy. He was deeply aware of their earlier disloyalty as instigators and backers of the antimonarchy Fronde (a mix of revolution and civil war) at the time of his regency. To neutralize the old aristocracy's potential threat, he attached themâliterallyâto his court, compelling them to be physically present in Versailles much of the time. This meant that their prospects of income from the crown depended on how well favored they were by the king. That, of course, depended on how well they served him.
By elevating so many newcomers, Louis had created a new class of people who were beholden to him. In the process, he was centralizing his own authority more fully and enhancing his ability to enforce his views at the cost of many of the court's old aristocrats. Thus he erected a system of “absolute” control whose success depended on the loyalty of the military, the new aristocrats, and on tying the hands of the old aristocrats so that their welfare translated directly into his welfare.
The French populace in general did not figure much into Louis's calculations of who needed to be paid offâthey did not represent an imminent threat to him. Even so, it's clear that his absolutism was not
absolute at all. He needed supporters and he understood how to maintain their loyalty. They would be loyal to him only so long as being so was more profitable for them than supporting someone else.
Louis's strategy was to replace the “winning coalition” of essential supporters that he inherited with people he could more readily count on. In place of the old guard he brought up and into the inner circle members of the
noblesse de robe
and even, in the bureaucracy and especially in the military, some commoners. By expanding the pool of people who could be in the inner circle, he made political survival for those already in that role more competitive. Those who were privileged to be in his winning coalition knew that under the enlarged pool of candidates for such positions, any one of them could easily be replaced if they did not prove sufficiently trustworthy and loyal to the king. That, in turn, meant they could lose their opportunity for wealth, power, and privilege. Few were foolish enough to take such a risk.
Like all leaders, Louis forged a symbiotic relationship with his inner circle. He could not hope to thrive in power without their help, and they could not hope to reap the benefits of their positions without remaining loyal to him. Loyal they were. Louis XIV survived in office for seventy-two years until he died quietly of old age in 1715.
Louis XIV's experience exemplifies the most fundamental fact of political life. No one rules alone; no one has absolute authority. All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs available for scratching.Three Political Dimensions
For leaders, the political landscape can be broken down into three groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition.
The nominal selectorate includes every person who has at least some legal say in choosing their leader. In the United States it is everyone eligible to vote, meaning all citizens aged eighteen and over. Of course, as every citizen of the United States must realize, the right to vote is important, but at the end of the day no individual voter has a lot of say
over who leads the country. Members of the nominal selectorate in a universal-franchise democracy have a toe in the political door, but not much more. In that way, the nominal selectorate in the United States or Britain or France doesn't have much more power than its counterparts, the “voters,” in the old Soviet Union. There, too, all adult citizens had the right to vote, although their choice was generally to say Yes or No to the candidates chosen by the Communist Party rather than to pick among candidates. Still, every adult citizen of the Soviet Union, where voting was mandatory, was a member of the nominal selectorate. The second stratum of politics consists of the real selectorate. This is the group that
chooses the leader. In today's China (as in the old Soviet Union), it consists of all voting members of the Communist Party; in Saudi Arabia's monarchy it is the senior members of the royal family; in Great Britain, the voters backing members of parliament from the majority party. The most important of these groups is the third, the subset of the real selectorate that makes up a winning coalition. These are the people whose support is essential if a leader is to survive in office. In the USSR the winning coalition consisted of a small group of people inside the Communist Party who chose candidates and who controlled policy. Their support was essential to keep the commissars and general secretary in power. These were the folks with the power to overthrow their bossâand he knew it. In the United States the winning coalition is vastly larger. It consists of the minimal number of voters who give the edge to one presidential candidate (or, at the legislative level in each state or district, to a member of the House or Senate) over another. For Louis XIV, the winning coalition was a handful of members of the court, military officers, and senior civil servants without whom a rival could have replaced the king.
Fundamentally, the nominal selectorate is the pool of potential support for a leader; the real selectorate includes those whose support is truly influential; and the winning coalition extends only to those essential supporters without whom the leader would be finished. A simple way to think of these groups is:
In the United States, the voters are the nominal selectorateâ
. As for the real selectorateâ
âthe electors of
the electoral college
choose the president (just like the party faithful picked their general secretary back in the USSR), but the electors nowadays are normatively bound to vote the way their state's voters voted, so they don't really have much independent clout in practice. In the United States, the nominal selectorate and real selectorate are therefore pretty closely aligned. This is why, even though you're only one among many voters, interchangeable with others, you still feel like your vote is influentialâthat it counts and is counted. The winning coalitionâ
âin the United States is the smallest bunch of voters, properly distributed among the states, whose support for a candidate translates into a presidential win in the electoral college. And while the winning coalition (essentials) is a pretty big fraction of the nominal selectorate (interchangeables), it doesn't have to be even close to a majority of the US population. In fact, given the federal structure of American elections, it's possible to control the executive and legislative branches of government with as little as about one fifth of the vote, if the votes are really efficiently placed. (Abraham Lincoln was a master at just such voter efficiency.) It is worth observing that the United States has one of the world's biggest winning coalitions both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the electorate. But it is not the biggest. Britain's parliamentary structure requires the prime minister to have the support of a little over 25 percent of the electorate in two-party elections to parliament. That is, the prime minister generally needs at least half the members of parliament to be from her party and for each of them to win half the vote (plus one) in each two-party parliamentary race: half of half of the voters, or one quarter in total. France's runoff system is even more demanding. Election requires that a candidate win a majority in the final, two-candidate runoff.