The Dictator’s Handbook

I gave this book a 5 star rating. I don’t know how you determine your review system, but I only give 5 stars if it changed my life.

The Dictator’s Handbook illuminated key policy differences between governments that rely on pleasing a small coalition of supporters, and those that need to keep a larger group happy. This is the key difference between dictatorships and democracies; the former leader richly rewards a handful of co-conspirators, the latter enacts public policies that benefit the voting majority.

Once in power (via election or coup), a leader’s overarching goal is to stay in power by securing the money and using it to reward their supporters. Through this lens, it’s easy to see why some despot-led countries, rich with natural resources, ignore and oppress their citizens. The leader doesn’t need to care about the people, so long as they continue working and exporting. Similarly, a democratically elected leader doesn’t need to care about those who didn’t vote for her.

This thoroughly researched text is refreshingly cynical and calloused. Like all great expository and explanatory works, it focuses more on verifiable fact than comfortable fiction.

I found the chapter on foreign aid most controversial. As you may remember, I had planned on volunteering overseas, but after reading this, I’m not sure anymore. The authors argued that government-to-government foreign aid is used to buy policy concessions, most of these examples came out of the Cold War era. Of course, dictators are more cheaply bought, so the US (among other countries) would donate funds, solidify foreign policy positions, and help keep despots in power.

Also, NGO donations might do more harm than good. So long as living conditions are abhorrent, freedoms are denied, disaster and conflict run rampant, and the people are in great need; wealthy nations and NGOs will donate. So long as donations keep flowing into the bloodstained hands of the autocratic leader, why would he lift a finger to alleviate his people’s misery?

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The Dictator’s Handbook

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