The Logic of Political Survival

…why do governments that cripple or destroy their own societies survive in office for so long? …why do democratic leaders typically govern with less corruption, more prosperity, and less war for their peoples?

If you would like to deepen your understanding of politics — to be able to better predict what politicians will do, read on.

The Logic of Political Survival by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, James D. Morrow; MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003

Russ Roberts’ Econtalk podcast series offers two wonderfully instructive conversations with Hoover Institution and NYU political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita about his theory of political power — how dictators and democratically elected leaders respond to the political forces that keep them in office. The first was 14 August, 2006, The Political Economy of Power. The second was 12 February, 2007 Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Democracies and Dictatorships. I recommend listening to the discussions in order.

I’ll attempt to summarize the kernel ideas, which provide a common framework for understanding how leaders behave over the spectrum of systems of government – from democracy to kleptocracy. I.e., the theory attempts to explain the incentives seen by a John Howard as well as by a Fidel Castro:

  • The primary focus of political leaders is to retain power.

  • The behavior of dictators differs from democratic leaders primarily due to the institutional characteristics of their respective systems.

  • Three parameters describe much of the institutional influence: the size of the Selectorate, the size of the Winning Coalition, and the ratio of those sizes.

  • The Selectorate are all those who influence the selection of new leadership — i.e., in the US that would be the electorate. In North Korea that would be the influential military officers, the drug & weapons smugglers, etc.

  • The Winning Coalition is the subset of the Selectorate that receives the “Private Goods“, and via loyalty keeps the leader[s] in power. In Australia that would be approximately the politicians of the governing party [and secondarily, the party voters]. In North Korea the Winning Coalition is a tiny fraction, estimated at between 250 to 2500 men who share about US$ 1.2 billion, or about 10% of the economy.

  • Private Goods are those given by the leadership to their supporters. In the Australian example these are ministerial appointments, etc. In Saddam’s Iraq the goodies given to the cronies were primarily corruption opportunities.

  • Public Goods are the inverse of the Private Goods. Public+Private Goods = the outputs the government controls.

  • If you are a leader, say Saddam, supported by a very small Winning Coalition, then corruption is the most efficient way to stay in power. I.e., starve Public Goods in order to provide Private Goodies to your cronies.

  • If you are a leader, say John Howard, supported by a very large Winning Coalition – i.e., roughly half of the Selectorate, then the most efficient way to stay in power is by the provision of Public Goods. E.g., education, defense, roads, health, retirement.

  • From a leader’s perspective the optimum institutional design is the one Lenin invented – that of Rigged Elections – where you have a relatively Very Small Winning Coalition and a Very Large Selectorate. The relatively-smaller the Winning Coalition the more loyal they are [because they run a BIG risk of not being included in an alternate leader’s coalition]. I.e., of being cut off from the bribes.

  • Lenin’s invention of the rigged-election-autocracy is of course no longer secret: reference Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Castro, or Putin.

  • Essential to the rigged-election-autocracy is for the leader to prevent freedom of assembly and to control the media. Given those two controls it isn’t so important to control the vote counting – that’s just a nice to have. Note especially that “certified honest elections” are meaningless in this context.

  • Regardless of institutional design, a leader’s optimal economic framework is the “resource curse” such as oil or diamonds. Then he need not tax labor to feed the corruption.

  • Foreign aid behaves exactly the same as the cursed resources – aid props up the dictator. Aid is channeled first to the corrupt Winning Coalition – making the situation of the intended recipients of the aid worse off than before the aid. There is a way to make aid effective, but it has never been attempted. See the podcast for the details on how to reform the World Bank, etc.

That’s my attempt to summarize the foundations. These two podcasts delve into much, much more: from term limits to war-making to war-exiting to trade. Enjoy!

You can retrieve two excellent academic reviews of Bueno de Mesquita’s latest book “The Logic of Political Survival” at Political ReviewNet by searching for the book title. The first review is by Stephen G. Walker:

It is not surprising that this book took four authors a decade and almost 500 pages of text, sans footnotes and references, to complete. In spite of the scope of the analysis and the use of powerful mathematical and statistical methods, The Logic of Political Survival is written in an engaging style that makes the argument accessible to a general reader.

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