The Dictator’s Handbook | February

The UN Youth Book Club highlights a non-fiction book every month to inspire you to read and learn more about the world. We’d love for you to participate in discussion in the comments below or on Facebook!

The Dictator’s Handbook
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alistair Smith
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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.

Thoughts on the book:
This book was always going to be on our book club reading list, but after the week that’s been, it seems especially relevant. In particular, the book highlights how countries that outwardly appear to be democratic, can slide into authoritarianism. It discusses the issues that come from cracking down on freedom of speech and of the press, and the ways in which leaders can seemingly fair elections.

The authors also offer a damning argument against international aid for struggling countries. They suggest that it achieves little except to keep despots in power. Similarly, the book discusses why democracies are bad at promoting democracies in other countries, by showing the incentives democratic countries have to undermine democracy in other countries.

Amid the doom and gloom, however, the authors offer hope by outlining concrete methods for promoting democracy and encouraging leaders to improve their countries for the benefit of all their citizens. For all the UN Youth members who have come to our Model UNs before, some of these ideas might inspire you to think differently about international public policy and problem solving.

If you’re still unsure whether you want to read the book, get started with the video below which goes over some of the main arguments. Be sure to comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts on the book, and we’ll see you next month!

Next month:


I Contain Multitudes
Ed Yong
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