The Corner

Machiavelli Updated

The coldly prescriptive thread in political science — “here is what you must do to get and keep power” — is associated in most of our minds with Machiavelli. In fact, written texts go back to the sages of pre-imperial China, and I’m sure the topic was intensively, if un-systematically, studied long before that. It has of course also generated a considerable literature since Machiavelli laid down his pen.**

That makes it hard to come up with anything new to say. Hard but not impossible: Today’s world offers an exceptionally rich dataset of well-documented power structures against which to test ideas, and we all have computers at hand for the quantitative analyses.

NYU political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have some new things to say, and they have said them in an engaging new book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, due September 27.

Surveying the world from China to Peru, the authors induce some general principles — general enough to apply to democracies as well as dictatorships, to Abraham Lincoln as well as to Kim Jong Il, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as well as to the Soviet Communist Party.

The cold cynicism has a noble end, too. I can’t improve on the blurb given by James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA:

In this fascinating book Bueno de Mesquita and Smith spin out their view of governance: that all successful leaders, dictators and democrats, can best be understood as almost entirely driven by their own political survival — a view they characterize as “cynical, but we fear accurate.” Yet as we follow the authors through their brilliant historical assessments of leaders’ choices — from Caesar to Tammany Hall and the Green Bay Packers — we gradually realize that their brand of cynicism yields extremely realistic guidance about spreading the rule of law, decent government, and democracy. James Madison would have loved this book.

There’s good quantitative analysis in here too. I particularly liked the “Nike graph” (Figure 10.1), though it would take too long to explain in a blog post.

Check out The Dictator’s Handbook. Then find yourself a country (or a state, a city, a company, a school board . . .) and get to work.

** With the following somewhat un-Machiavellian (if, I mean, you suppose that Machiavelli preached an utterly amoral approach to public affairs) anecdote about Castruccio Castracani:

He was having a discussion with the ambassador of the King of Naples concerning the property of some banished nobles, when a dispute arose between them, and the ambassador asked him if he had no fear of the king. “Is this king of yours a bad man or a good one?” asked Castruccio, and was told that he was a good one, whereupon he said, “Why should you suggest that I should be afraid of a good man?”

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