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The Dictator's Handbook

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The Dictator's Handbook
Cover artistBrent Wilcox
SubjectPolitical science, Social theory
Publication date
September 1, 2011
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
978-1-61039-045-3 (eBook)
LC ClassJC330.3 .B84 2011

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics is a 2011 non-fiction book by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, published by the company PublicAffairs. It discusses how politicians gain and retain political power.

Bueno de Mesquita is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.[1] His co-writer is also an academic,[2] and both are political scientists.[3]

Michael Moynihan of The Wall Street Journal stated that the writing style is similar to that of Freakonomics.[3] Moynihan added that the conclusions the book makes originate from the fields of economics, history, and political science, leading him to call the authors "polymathic".[3]

Mesquita and Smith, with other authors, previously wrote about the "selectorate" theory in the academic book The Logic of Political Survival.[4]: 1095 

The Netflix series How to Become a Tyrant is partly based on this book.[5]



Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue that politicians, regardless of whether they are in authoritarian dictatorships or in democracies, must stay in power by pleasing a core inner circle of power brokers, and that politicians must engage in self-interested behavior in order to stay in power.[2] They argued that the motives of politicians are "To come to power, to stay in power and, to the extent that they can, to keep control over money."[3] The main difference between the scenarios of democratic and authoritarian politicians is that democratic politicians have to please a large number of power brokers and/or the public at large while authoritarian ones please relatively small circles. These are referred to as large coalition governments and small coalition governments. These differences are illustrated in the infrastructure developed in authoritarian and democratic societies. In addition, authoritarian rulers, due to their smaller circles of power brokers, tend to have longer periods of power.[3] The authors also stated that politicians usually do beneficial acts when these acts benefit them or when they must do the acts.[2] The book also argues that aid to third-world countries benefits authoritarian governments, though it can be reformed to help those who need it.[6]

Occasionally terminologies differ in sections of the book. Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times argued that this is sometimes confusing.[6]



Martin Patriquin of Maclean's wrote that the authors "make a frightfully good argument by turning an old cliché on its ear. Power doesn’t corrupt. Rather, power inevitably attracts the corrupted."[2]

Ed Howker of The Guardian stated that the book assumes all politicians act rationally, and that its attitude was so cynical "that it made me flinch on more than one occasion."[1] He added that "it's good to read the evidence" of how authoritarian governments and systems operate.[1]

Moynihan wrote that the book "contains many points that are common-sensical".[3] Moynihan added that there are some minor errors in fact in the book due to its large scope.[3]

Brittan wrote that it is "most illuminating in the cases of dictatorships in the developing world or highly imperfect democracies such as Russia or Iran."[6]

Theodore McLauchlin of the University of Montreal concluded that it is a "serviceable introduction" and "bracing book that does indeed connect the dots across a wide array of political phenomena."[4]: 1099  McLauchlin criticized what he perceived were the book's failure to define what a "winning coalition" and "selectorate" are and other issues in the analysis.[4]: 1098  CGP Grey, a highly successful YouTuber, used this book as an inspiration and a guide when making his video "The Rules for rulers" in which he explained keys to holding political power by minimising key supporters, controlling the treasury and keeping key supporters on your side by using, among other things, treasury proceeds to buy loyalty.[7]


  1. ^ a b c Howker, Ed (August 12, 2012). "The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith – review". The Guardian. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d Patriquin, Martin (December 16, 2011). "REVIEW: The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics". Maclean's. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Moynihan, Michael (September 24, 2011). "Book Review: Dictator's Handbook". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c McLauchlin, Theodore (Autumn 2012). "Reviewed Work: THE DICTATOR'S HANDBOOK: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alistair Smith". International Journal. 67 (4): 1095–1099. doi:10.1177/002070201206700414. JSTOR 42704949. S2CID 155713009.
  5. ^ "Stream It Or Skip It: 'How To Become A Tyrant' On Netflix, A Snarky Docuseries That Provides A "Handbook" On Becoming A Dictator". Decider.com. July 13, 2021. Retrieved July 14, 2021. [...]How To Become A Tyrant, based on The Dictator's Handbook,[...]
  6. ^ a b c Brittan, Samuel (November 20, 2011). "The Dictator's Handbook". Financial Times. Retrieved November 20, 2017.
  7. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs&pp=ygUNY2dwIGdyZXkgc3R2IA%3D%3D