Broken Moral Compass Wins

When a book is endorsed by the WSJ reviewers AND the Public Radio reviewers, it likely has something of merit to offer.

While doing daily errands ( when I often listen to the Very Liberal National Public Radio and local affiliates ) the local Public Radio station was reviewing a book.

“The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics”

The authors are Political Science professors and the basic thesis is just that it is a very rational thing to do, to lie, cheat, and deceive; when in political power.

What it comes down to is that those who are bound by a strong moral compass are almost certainly going to lose. Those who identify the few (and it is a VERY few) folks who must be placated for the supplicant to win power and does what it takes to buy them wins. For some it takes the form of customized laws. For others it will ‘Sweet Lies’. For others, positions of power or authority. All the stuff of graft, insider and self dealing, bribery (some of it legal bribery via ‘contributions’ to campaigns).

For example, we like to think ‘our vote counts’; but in reality, only a very few votes actually matter. Most “blue states” vote blue and most “red states” vote red. Much like the Democrats lock on the Black Vote (despite Republicans having lead the North in the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation); so they don’t do much to ‘court the black vote’. Why waste your favors on buying a vote you already have? Better to spend the money smearing your opponent with ‘issues’ that matter to the ‘swing voter’. (The smear need not have any truth in it; only be believable on causal observation).

The point was stressed that this is a fundamental property of all political organizations (and even private enterprise can have ‘office politics’…) so seen inside NGOs, Governments, etc.

The essentially rational decision is to pander, lie, bribe, payoff, smear and generally be an Evil Bastard about things.

IMHO, it explains a lot. Not the least of which is why “Limited Government” ought to be our #1 goal. As Government will always end up being run by Evil Bastards lacking in a moral compass and it is a structural aspect that can not be ‘fixed’; the best you can do is make the ‘turf’ it covers as absolutely small as possible. ( Unfortunately, the same pressures will push government to expand forever and grow without bound to suck up all available opportunities to gain more power, control, opportunities to reward friends, punish competitors, and pander, lie, bribe, etc.)

I’ve not read the book yet, but the reviews make it look interesting:

September 24, 2011

It’s Good to Be Boss


During the recent debt-ceiling debate, a passel of politicians and pundits offered variations on the same sound bite: While their side’s plan was necessary to stop America’s slide toward financial Götterdämmerung, their opponents were recklessly placing electoral politics above the good of the country. President Obama finger-wagged at Republicans for creating a “partisan three-ring circus.” Doing his best impression of Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner expressed shock that “the president’s worried about his next election. But my God, shouldn’t we be worried about the country?”

Not exactly. To political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, the authors of “The Dictator’s Handbook”—a lucidly written, shrewdly argued meditation on how democrats and dictators preserve political authority—it’s not only unsurprising that politicians craft legislation with an eye toward re-election but also deeply rational. All leaders, whether of democracies or autocracies, dictatorships or monarchies, desire the same goals. “Why do leaders do what they do? To come to power, to stay in power and, to the extent that they can, to keep control over money.”

So how is it that undemocratic leaders—who exploit, imprison and brutalize their subjects—frequently maintain power for far longer periods than their democratic counterparts? Autocrats, the authors argue, need only reward only a small class of loyalists—the army, judiciary, an inner circle of advisers—who will reliably suppress opposition. While democrats likewise dispense rewards—sweetheart contracts, farm subsidies, welfare payments—they are constrained by a system of government that requires the loyalty of fickle voters. This ensures that if a leader accumulates wealth and power in a few hands, his job security weakens.
The most fascinating chapter in “The Dictator’s Handbook” concerns the rewards that governments provide other governments. The authors make the obvious, but nevertheless controversial, argument that almost all aid money is dispersed not to alleviate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence. There also exists an important political calculus for autocratic aid recipients, who are often willing to make unpopular domestic political decisions provided that the benefits are ample enough to satiate those loyalists who sustain their power.

Which all seems “just about right” to me.

“Foreign Aid” has always looked like massive bribery to me. It looks like that is well understood and that the desire to eliminate it would run headlong into a fundamental power politics reality.

In other words, the reader will be hard-pressed to find a single government that doesn’t largely operate according to Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s model. So the next time a hand-wringing politician, Democrat or Republican, claims to be taking a position for the “good of his country,” remember to replace the word “country” with “career.”
—Mr. Moynihan is the managing editor of Vice magazine.

There’s more in the article, along with a couple of nice pictures.

The book?

Looks like about $16 to $18 new (paperback / hardcover) $10 Kindle and some other suppliers at $8 to $5 (used).

The Amazon book description:

For eighteen years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the “national interest”—or even their subjects—unless they have to.

This clever and accessible book shows that the difference between tyrants and democrats is just a convenient fiction. Governments do not differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching. The size of this group determines almost everything about politics: what leaders can get away with, and the quality of life or misery under them. The picture the authors paint is not pretty. But it just may be the truth, which is a good starting point for anyone seeking to improve human governance.

So on my “someday” list. I’m “booked up” for the next few months with other things that need doing, but “someday” it looks like ‘worth the time’. If anyone else reads it first, let us know what you think of it.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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21 Responses to Broken Moral Compass Wins

  1. omanuel says:

    Thank you for bringing my attention to the book, “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics”

    It complements another news report today on psychopaths in office:

    More and more people are beginning to appreciate that:

    i.) Integrity in government science and
    ii.) Constitutional limits on government

    Both started to disappear after 1945 and continued to erode, out-of sight, until surfacing as Climategate emails and documents in 2009.

    I am delighted to note that proponents of – 1.) Integrity in government science and 2.) Constitutional limits on government – are beginning to see their common goals.

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  2. KevinM says:

    “Government will always end up being run by Evil Bastards lacking in a moral compass”
    Or willing fools in the service of Evil Bastards? I have a hard time seeing some of our leaders as competent agents of evil (plenty examples from both sides of the Coke/Pepsi aisle).

  3. I still don’t really understand the motivation of people that want to be In Control. It looks like harder work than a proper job making things. Although I haven’t read the book, so can’t comment on the contents, the descriptions do seem to match what I’ve seen of Evil Bastards in Power. I have met one honest (local) politician, and he was very much a Marxist who had a bust on Lenin in his antiques shop. He did get elected and did do good. But that was a long time ago. Such people, I think, are rare.

  4. E.M.Smith says:


    One can hope… We’re a different group of folks now. My parents would never have believed their government capable of deliberate evil. Now, well, it’s hard to think otherwise…


    I suspect that in Dictatorships and Socialisms (especially the Communist form) we get the Evil Bastard unvarnished. (Stalin, Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Mao, Napoleon, …) While in democracies we have to maintain at least the image of “fairness” and playing from the same moral playbook. So we get more “Evil Bastards by Proxy” and “Poser Evil Bastards”. So is Obama a “poser” ( Mr. Most Moral Ever and high standards in office / campaigns…) or just a teleprompter reading tool? Don’t know that it matters much. Romney is being painted as an “Evil Bastard” by Obama and the Dems, but I suspect he is just a ‘tool’ that will loose due to too much of a Moral Compass.

    Already the truly horrid attack ads from the Democrats have called him a woman hating animal abusing murderer driven only by greed and avarice. His answer is to smile and ignore it as just politics… and he’s lot 5 to 8 points in the poles as a consequence. Mormans tend to be ‘publicly moral’ to excess. Trained to put up with crap and just smile and press on with ‘the message’. Hopefully Romney can “get over it” and show he, too, has some spine. He needs to “attack the messenger” (even though I think that is evil) on those slimy slander ads.

    Oh Well. We’ll get all the government we, collectively, deserve; especially if we are willing to accept this kind of juvenile and broken behaviour from our politicians.

    We, the people, are supposed to be the countervailing force to that, but we seem too amoral and lacking in intelligence to handle that duty.

  5. E.M.Smith says:


    The reasons folks quest to be “In Control” are many. For a lot of them it is just the “perks of power”. Nothing like a limo taking you everywhere, and unlimited fine dining budget, and free trips around the world to make you happy. For others, it’s the bucket of money they can get out of the system. (Look at how many enter poor and leave Millionaires… Madam Hillary managed to rack up a few million – and that doesn’t include the easy and big lifetime pensions).

    But, IMHO, worst of the worst are the one who want to feel important by “doing good” and “changing the world”. There is no limit to what someone will do in the quest to “feel good by doing good”. Even if it crushes others and is destructive. So look at all the things the UN does. Largely wrapped in “feel good” emoting. Then look at the trail of evil and destruction at the end of the line. Those on the top “feel good by doing good” while those being killed, starving, having their rights removed, incarcerated, dying of Malaria, etc. et. al. are not feeling so good.

    For many folks, they want to be “self actualized” to excess. If you are “in control” then you have the ultimate in self actualizing power. Look at Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs:

    You find “esteem” and “self actualization” at the top. So the “idle rich” and those with time on their hands naturally gravitate to trying to control the lives of others so that they can get some “esteem” and “self actualization” (via removing it from those they control…)

    In short: “It’s good to be the King!” ’cause you get all the perks and folks are always ‘giving you strokes’ to your ego, esteem, and ‘self actualization’ is just a pen stroke away…

  6. Power Grab says:

    This is very timely!

    I have been puzzling over why the people with all the power and influence (politicians and bureaucrats and mass media mavens) work so hard to promote lifestyles of death.

    I decided it means job security for them. They create (add to) the problems so they can keep telling people they are the ones to “fix” the problems.

    Also, it seems to me that if your’e one of the tyrants, and you can keep control of minions by holding the keys to their closets with the skeletons, then you have reduced the number of serious enemies to practically zero. So you keep promoting the lifestyles that lead to skeletons-in-the-closet and you keep even tighter rein on the underlings, assuming they will fight to the death to hide your secrets for you.


  7. BobN says:

    People aspire to power for the “Perks”. Just look at members of congress, they enter politics relatively poor and leave millionaires. I’m sure they are all great savers. Why even Hillary Clinton made 100k by her expertise in futures trading — Right! Nancy Pelosi loved that big jet to shuffle her and family and friends all over the world, the bar tab alone was running 100k a year. Good old Harry Reid has amazing luck, every time he buys a piece of land they build a bridge or put a train through it.
    Yup, its all about public service!

  8. Judy F. says:

    One very boring Sunday afternoon last winter I watched something on either the SyFi channel or the History channel about the new Nostradamus, who was Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. From what I remember of the program, he has a mathmatical formula which he uses to predict outcomes of political decisions. I just found this article which references the show and it appears to be from the History channel program I remember, titled “The Next Nostradamus”. Kind of scary to think that our actions can be reduced to a mathmatical formula.

    Part of the show was about Web-bots and that was how de Mosquita got numbers to work with. It was intriguing and unsettling at the same time, to realize just how much information is floating around out there.

  9. Jason Calley says:

    @ Power Grab “So you keep promoting the lifestyles that lead to skeletons-in-the-closet and you keep even tighter rein on the underlings, assuming they will fight to the death to hide your secrets for you.”

    Yes, I think that is very much correct. I have for some time simply gone by the assumption that anyone who does not have a “skeleton-in-the-closet” will not knowingly be allowed to rise to power. I think there is another factor to consider. Imagine for a moment that you are a sociopath; you can cheat, lie and murder without remorse. You may be very bright, you may be a consummate actor, you may even have tremendous charisma — but without a conscience, without ethical principles, you will find that dealing with normal people is very scary. Who can understand them? Normal people do such crazy, irrational things! Just when you think you have some really sweet deal worked out, they balk. Heck, all you wanted to do was poison the well and then make a LOAD of money in the bottled water business! Don’t they understand that they will get RICH?! Naturally, a sociopath will prefer to deal with other sociopaths. A sociopath can understand other sociopaths — but normal people? No, unless you have a conscience, unless you know what it means to feel loyalty and love and compassion, you can never understand what normal people will do or how they might react if you need their help in some plan.

  10. P.G. Sharrow says:

    de Mesquita claims to be using webots and mathematical formula to discern future events. I have no idea of his real abilities, however, psychics often use an acceptable tool as cover. Merlin used herbals, Nostradamus used Astrology, A lady of our group uses Taro Cards. The real ability is within as these other things give a number of possibilities and the operative must chose one or speak in riddles to confuse and at times to protect themselves from authorities.
    Nostradamus said, to know the future was to accept it, not to change it. But at times I think that the future could use a little help. ;-) pg

  11. Petrossa says:

    The probem of the US descending into a moral morass is in my view is twofold.
    First a 2 party political system inevitably leads to institutionalized corruption.
    Secondly, any nation that puts itself in a geopolitical central position is that there are just too many variables to mesh so you are forced to make compromises that aren’t that morally defensible. Be it Russia,China or USA.

    That latest example is the hiring of AlQaida warriors by the US to combat the Syrian Army. Apart from the obvious fact it is a severe breach of sovereignty that the US itself would never stand for should it happen on their soil, hiring your archenemy to do your dirty deeds is beyond cynicism.

  12. Pascvaks says:

    When you ‘check’ the free speech of the pulpit (unless the NAACP and ACLU say you it’s OK because of ‘Past Inequities’) with a ‘rule’ about tax exemption you’ve pretty much cooked the goose and made the gravy and everthing else is dressing and plum pudding, after 50+ years of eating this ‘feast of feasts’ folks get very fat, stupid, tired, and sleepy, and it’s really all over but the funeral. We do have a way of committing suicide in many wonderous ways, do we not?

    PS: And that little example is only one of hundreds. It’s a form of Legal National Suicide.

  13. E.M.Smith says:


    Somehow I’m not surprised that 40%+ of the ‘carbon credits’ amount to ‘wealth distribution’ to 3rd world countries for the creation of a gas they then destroy…

    says it’s a useful product in its own right. Better destroy it then…

    CHF3 is used in the semiconductor industry in plasma etching of silicon oxide and silicon nitride. Known as R-23 or HFC-23, it is also a useful refrigerant, sometimes as a replacement for Chlorotrifluoromethane (cfc-13) and is a byproduct of its manufacture.

    When used as a fire suppressant, the fluoroform carries the DuPont trade name, FE-13. CHF3 is recommended for this application because of its low toxicity, its low reactivity, and its high density. HFC-23 has been used in the past as a replacement for Halon 1301[cfc-13b1] in fire suppression systems as a total flooding gaseous fire suppression agent.

    Sigh. The silly things that happen when you make an artificial market trading Carbon Quatloos based on mistaken hypotheticals.

    It’s also looking more like the original model for the whole Global Warming money suck was the Ozone Hole “treaty” and money suck based on computer models of fantasy “science”:

    “The large structure is an area with relatively low ozone concentrations at the high northerly latitudes. The polar vortex, which is building up, is visible here, in which a sideways movement of the air masses is visible. This sideways motion causes ozone-poor air from greater heights to be transported to an altitude of 30 km.”

    “A structure of medium size is found northwest of Tierra del Fuego [at the tip of South America]. There is an area of extremely low ozone concentration in the region of the outwardly directed south polar vortex. This does not concern the so-called ozone hole, which also occurs in the south polar vortex, but at lower altitudes. The ozone hole is a consequence of the peculiar meteorological conditions in the southern winter, which lead to a very stable polar vortex and thereby permit a complete destruction of the ozone between 12 and 22 km in the southern spring. In contrast, the low ozone densities at 30 km are mainly a consequence of the transporting away of ozone”.
    The primary role of dynamical processes in determining the thickness of the ozone layer has also been established in other extensive field work. On Dec. 1,Geophysical Research Letters, a joumal of the American Geophysical Union, published a scientific paper by scientists from Norwegian and Russian institutes demonstrating that the thickness of the ozone layer over Russia is determined by meteorology, not chemistry. (2)The scientists, Kjell Henriksen from the University of Tromso in Norway and Valentin Roldugin from the Polar Geophysical Institute in Russia, analyzed one year of daily samples from six Soviet Middle Asian ozone measuring stations at two different altitudes.

    They discovered that changes in the ozone layer were directly caused by the horizontal and vertical movement of air masses (that is, wind dynamics). A close analysis of the data also demonstrated that chemistry played no role in the thickness of the ozone layer over these stations. Theauthors discuss the implications of their work in detail:

    Fantasy atmospheric chemistry is trumped by measuring actual air flows…

    @R. de Haan:

    M.Pellosi would be a national embarrassment if we had enough collective intelligence to be embarrassed… Near as I can tell, she gets elected because she is an “Emotion Poodle” that reflects the emotional instability of a very concentrated group of emotion zealots who self congregate in one place – thus her seniority rights…

    Proving once again that it doesn’t matter how bright a group is; only that it be concentrated in one place and consistent in the fantasy it chooses to believe. Rather like religions.

    Sigh. “Intelligence is limited but stupidity knows no bounds. -E.M.Smith” And when you get seniority rights from consistent voting patterns, having a larger group of the stupid is more valuable than intelligence…


    Yeah. One of those “What?” moments. The “Wait a minute… we all have ‘free speech’ except some of us from the pulpit? That seems like muzzling to me…”


    Um, I question your assertion that a two party system is the cause of institutionalized corruption. Near as I can tell, ANY party system leads to institutionalized corruption. One Party (i.e. communism), two party (USA) or multiple party ( Italy / Greece / EU / …)


    “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” is also exploited by magicians in the reverse…

    @Power Grab:

    Interesting point… Manufacture failings for better control…


    Why I’m in favor of a “lock box” for your investements when you enter, NO new investments while in power, and you get your Government Bonds back when you exit. Yup. Stick their wealth in US Dollars in Treasuries. Might control inflation more then…

    @Judy F:

    Pretty much anything can be described using math. The internet just gives the guy more opportunities to get a large data sample. But yes, folks put an astounding amount of ‘stuff’ about themselves on the internet. Got to make government intelligence agencies just slobbering happy… Who needs a spy on the ground when you can do a street level ‘fly by’ with Google? Who needs to infiltrate a company when they post their financials and production descriptions on line?

    @Jason Calley:

    I’ve had that kind of experience. Raised some “moral compass” issues with a “boss” once and got “the look” of “You stupid or what?”… It’s just a flat out no rules money grub for some folks and they really are surprised when you ask about things outside that box. Worked with a Chinese guy for a while (Hong Kong origin) and he had, er, “flexible morality”. Very bright, and we worked well together; but … it was sometimes a challenge to convince him to put in a little extra to not break various ‘rules’… Strange thing was, he’d not “cheat” on big things that would matter; but seemed to think not picking up a penny on a $1000 project via some ‘trivial cut corner’ was being wrong…

    Oh Well….

  14. JP Miller says:

    While the thesis of this book is much to be applauded because of the truth about government it espouses, its thesis is precisely what our Founders understood and tried to design a governmental system to overcome — though even Jefferson was doubtful such a system could accomplish its intention for very long. Our Founders understood that the ONLY legitimate role of government is to provide protection for the people from external threat, to provide a system of criminal/ civil justice, to provide a few basic services they believed the private actions of citizens could not on their own provide (money and mail, in those days). And, of course, they had to deal with the issue of multiple political entities (the Colonies). They well-understood that the most limited government would be best for everyone over time. They hoped a federalized democracy would restrict the ability of the “bad guys” to take over. They were right for ~150 years.

    So sad that our citizens are not taught these lessons in school — it is what our Founders would have wanted/ expected. Whether a better-educated electorate would have helped avoid our current slow slide into dysfnuctionality is hard to know. Maybe not. In any case, we must determine if there’s any nonviolent way to reverse course. We and the Brits almost did it in the 1980’s, but could not sustain the change in mindset.

  15. Petrossa says:

    The less parties in a government the lesser the likelihood of ‘social control’, the bigger the likelihood of “well if they can why not us”. If you have multiple parties the changes increase of a bellringer.

    Your example of italy/greece etc isn’t fair since those countries corruption rests on ancient tradition dating from before modern politics. They have millenia of history ranging from nepotism to straight forward corruption.

    Which is the reason why those countries are presently so totally f’d up. Remember where the mafia originated….

    That corruption is institutionalized in the US is hard to deny after the vast range of government/corporate scandals that came to light, which can only mean there are many more that didn’t.

    It’s somewhat naive to assume that where the only ones. Even now with Obama and the ‘green’ industry one wonders.

  16. Graeme No.3 says:

    Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli had something to say on this subject, too.

  17. Pascvaks says:

    The Bell Curve moves in time over a very variable landscape and in changing climates; within the bubble of the Bell all is semi-fluid, yet remarkedly it generally retains it’s shape. What a curve!

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