The Dictator’s Handbook

I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.

At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.

Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.

The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.

 

I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).

In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.

Figure 18.  Click to open in new window.

But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.

But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.

As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.

The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.

Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.

Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?

Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.

And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.


*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.

**Whatever that means…

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Wars and Presidents: Avoiding the Power-Display Bias

This week on EconTalk, Russ Roberts interviewed Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on how presidents who took the United States to war find themselves higher in the rankings of “Great Presidents” (see this paper by Henderson and Gochenour on the issue)  For some time now, I have found myself in agreement with that contention as wars are generally momentous events that stand out in history. In contrast, the man who sits by and does nothing except preventing a war or making it easier for people to trade, that is harder to observe.  But why would evaluating Presidents be associated with such a premium? Individuals are aware that wars are bad, so why are they praising this? On other metrics, how do Presidents fare?

On the power-display bias 

In my forthcoming book on Canadian economic history (published by Palgrave McMillan as part of their Studies in Economic History), I reviewed some pantheons and counter-pantheons of Presidents (which I will present below) and I felt I had to offer my argument regarding these pantheons:

The established pantheon and the counter-pantheon differ mostly due to people’s bias towards positively assessing outward signs of power. When he wrote to one of his correspondents that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” British historian Lord Acton was not only speaking of politicians, but also of those would retroactively judge them: Acton was referring to a general human tendency – accentuated amongst historians – to be more forgiving of those who hold power, because the powerful are judged by their actions. Indeed, it is easier to size up a politician who undertook significant reforms – regardless of the results obtained thereby – than to evaluate the achievements of one who passively held the line. If the reformer fails, it can be said that at least he tried. Moreover, a given president’s place in the pantheon is closely linked to how many Americans he killed during the military conflicts that defined his reign. The more Americans killed per capita overall, the higher a given president’s ranking in the list of “greats.”

Economic history teaches us, however, that the most proactive presidents may not be the most beneficial to their country, on the contrary. For several years now, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) has been the subject of increased criticism in the economic literature for his interventionist economic policies between 1932 and 1939. Economists Albrecht Ritschl, Monique Ebell, Lee Ohanian and Harold Cole have determined that FDR’s interventionist policies in fact served to prolong the Great Depression.

In other words, the bias we have when evaluating men with power is that we evaluate based on the exercise of displaying the use of power. Those who refrain from using it are, properly, not recorded as historical events are conflicts/tensions/oppositions. This I think is generally a bias that is easily to fall prey to. I am not immune to that even if I happen to have libertarian leanings. I often see in one politician or another in history a man/woman that I wish would be here today to “save the day” (one of my childish belief). But each time I dig around that person, I am less enthused. For example, I used to be an admirer of William Pitt the Younger – a fierce one. After all, he had assisted Wilberforce in ending the slave trade, he had instituted a sinking fund to repay the British public debt (he had willfully tied his hands) and he he had been moderately sympathetic to the American revolution. I saw his role in the wars against France as a contest of circumstances. But, that was the point, I was ready to discount the war. In addition, as I read the work of Jane Humphries on child labor in industrializing Britain (here and here), I discovered more unsettling things.  During the French Wars, the build-up of the British state did lead to some crowding-out on factors markets, notably the labor market. Upon complaints of manufacturers, Pitt proposed to “Yoke Up the Children”. More precisely, he proposed the use of orphan in the public care to work as pauper apprentices to firms at pences on the shilling (bad pun of pennies on the dollar). He “lent” orphans to private firms and its hard to assume that they consented to work (as Humphries’s use of oral histories makes clear). If a person with libertarian leanings like me was willing to excuse such a man before, it is quite telling of how limited knowledge shores up the reputations of powerful men. This is because their use of power overshadows all the rest. Their use of power is like the joke about economists looking where the lamppost is: we evaluate them on what their use of power has illuminated.

Other Metrics

So, are there any other metrics that are less subjected to our inherent power-display bias? Obviously, anything that has a subjective element will be biased. However, evaluating the evolution of living standards under their rule is one way to go at it. Mark Zachary Taylor, in an article published in PS: Political Science and Politicsproposed an economic ranking of US Presidents since 1789. Whichever way you cut it, there is a weak rank correlation between the rankings of presidential greatness and the ranking of economic grades.

Ranking.png

There is another type of ranking, which is more subtle. It measures how much Presidents refrained from expanding federal power. This exercise was made by Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway (two great economic historians) who measured presidents based on their changes to the size of government and inflation. This measure alone (see table below) is not sufficient to be convincing, but taken as part of a constellation of rankings, it provides a key piece of evidence. This is really a counter-pantheon to the rankings of presidential greatness. In fact, one could see it as the cost for societies of presidential greatness.

presidentialgreatness

When comes the time to evaluate great rulers, being aware of our biases is crucial (as Lord Acton, I think they should rarely be excused based on flimsy excused like circumstances – the virtue of being an historian/economic historian is that we have enough hindsight to say how terrible certain choices were).  And that awareness should lead us to develop a “dashboard” of rankings to properly weigh the impact of such rulers.

Why Republican Libertarianism? V Concluding Remarks

(This text was written for the European Students for Liberty Regional Conference in Istanbul at Boğaziçi University. I did not deliver the paper, but used it to gather thoughts which I then presented in an improvised speech. As it was quite a long text, I am breaking it up for the purposes of blog presentation)

There is a tendency within liberty oriented though which sees the intrusions of the state in the modern world as something to do with republicanism and the democratic political spirit. The development of what has been called the administrative state, administered society, the iron cage of bureaucracy, disciplinarity (generalised power throughout society), biopower (sovereignty over life and health), and so on, has taken place in all state forms. It is deeply embedded in the emergence of modern industrial world, where traditional authority structures and customary laws are eroded by city life, national and international markets and technological innovation.

This process has one aspect the emergence of a modern state in which we see national debt financing an investor class, and the expanded central state enforcing uniform legal codes. There is a political economy of this which ties interest groups to the state, and tries to find ways in which everyone could be defined as belonging to a group that benefits from state action. At any time we see states in the double process of maintaining such a political economy and using state power to protect the associated institutions.

There are periods in which such developments of the state take place at a heightened pace, usually due to war of some kind and maybe a collapse of attempts at peaceful balance between groups in a society. Groups  which seem marginal or even as the source of violent resistance are assimilated or subject to maximum state force.  in practice has always gone along with these developments, in all forms of state.

A lot of this has come out of the pre-modern monarchical state reinforcing its traditional power. Resisting he administrative-bureaucratic state means engaging in politics, in citizen movements, in peaceful civil disobedience where necessary to defend basic rights. That is not  looking back to pre-modern forms of law, authority and statehood, in which pluralism exists in rigid state enforced hierarchies, and tradition limits individual self-creation. In the modern world republicanism has sometimes acquired a ‘Jacobin’ form of intense and violent state creation, but as Tocqueville pointed out in The French Revolution and the Old Regime, it carries on the work of the old monarchy in doing so.

The republican political tradition has to some degree acquired a tainted reputation due to association with the most violent aspects of the French Revolution, and Machiavelli’s frankness about what can happen when regimes change. However, the violence attributed to the republican moment was always at work before in the strengthening of central political institutions and the unified ordering of the society concerned. There have been such moments throughout history, but the shift to the modern administrative state has made them  much more thoroughgoing in  their influence on social relations.

Republicanism is a way of coping with this that tries to bring in the restraints of law and accountability to the public in various forms. It has not been an escape from the modern administrative state, or the violence accompanying much of the historical emergence of that state, but no other way of doing politics has escaped either, and the republican way even in its worse moments has at least emphasised the principles of law above persons, the non-passive rights of citizens, and the importance of instruments of political accountability. The monarchist and depoliticised forms of thinking about liberty have also sometimes collapsed into state terror, without the message that a better way exists. The conservative empire and the traditionalist state have used, maintained, and intensified violence in reaction to real and perceived threats without being able to offer the prospect of better political forms and structures than the hierarchies of tradition. The differences are not absolute, as Tocqueville indicates, and at times republican city governments have existed within traditional hereditary states, and monarchist reformers have attempted to bring in ideas with republican origins. A republic can collapse into a permanent system of personalised authority, but it is the republican tradition which tells us what is wrong with that.

In any case, republicanism as it exists now in political thought is concerned with restraints on power not intensification of state power. Its engagement with historical situation and concrete politics, its appeal (at least in the form associated with Hannah Arendt) to individuality and contestation in politics is the best way of making a complete application of the principle of liberty to the political and historical world.

Useful neoconservative insights

It is not common for liberals to praise neoconservative thinkers. Regardless if this concerns domestic politics or international affairs.  While this normally makes a lot of sense, sometimes the liberals are clearly at fault. I recently re-read two of Robert Kagan’s most famous books: Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) and The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008). The power of Kagan’s analysis struck me again in these two concise books, predominantly his balanced treatment of the enduring and dominant role of power in world politics. This is something not many liberals are keen to accept, the classical liberals excepted, most notably Hume, Smith and the certainly the hawkish Hayek.

In the light of the topical situation in Eastern Europe, let me quote a few lines from The Return of History.

  • ‘One of the geopolitical fault lines runs along the western frontier of Russia, [Ukraine included] with Russia on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition.’
  • ‘If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned. Russia’s turn toward liberalism at home stalled and then reversed, and so has its foreign policy […….] Great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional great power calculations and ambitions.’
  • ‘Contrary to the dismissive views of many in the West, Russia is a great power, and it takes pride in being a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.’
  • ‘its oil and gas wealth has allowed Moscow to increase defense spending by more than 20 percent annually over the past three years’.
  • ‘This new sense of power today fuels Russian nationalism. It also stirs up deep resentment and feelings of humiliation […] such as acceptance of NATO enlargement, the withdrawal of troops from former Soviet republics and the ceding of independence to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.’

Recall this was in 2008 and it just a very brief selection. There was not much the liberals (of all persuasions) could have added to this. Liberals generally lack realistic let alone original views on world politics. That is simply not good enough, if they have intentions to widens the appeal of liberal thought. An embrace of neoconservative insights such as Kagan’s would be a good start.