Interview with the Author: Dictators' Race to the Bottom

Alastair Smith
December 01, 2011

In their new book, The Dictator’s Handbook, New York University professors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argue that to understand how dictators monopolize power, we need to look no further than our local city council. The book begins in Bell, California, where a scandal erupted in 2010 over the city manager’s $787,000 annual salary. For seventeen years, Robert Rizzo swindled thousands of dollars from his constituents, a quarter of whom lived below the poverty line. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith discovered that Rizzo behaved as all politicians do, whether democrats or dictators, securing his hold on power by reducing the size of his electorate. Rizzo manipulated the timing of elections to ensure low voter turnout and held special elections on policies that would give the city council greater control of the budget. In a conversation with the Journal’s Rebecca Chao, Smith explained how dictators act in very much the same way, and discussed how the book’s unconventional and pessimistic take on governance provides us with a more informative method for classifying regimes.