my notes after reading The Dictator’s Handbook

Please find below my notes after reading The Dictator’s Handbook by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Thank you anh Le Vinh Truong for giving me the book and others tagged here for the inspiration that helps me to read and write this note. Hope that it could help. Your comments in all languages are very welcomed.

We may ask why the police in an autocratic regime can do that: beat, torture and slander the people, imprison their country, for so many years.
The answer is as simple as the question. Police officers are paid to do what they are asked to do. May be some of them who are very violent could enjoy beating and torturing others, but I am convinced that most of them don’t. Although they don’t like to do that distasteful job of beating their compatriots, they still do that for the payment.
Is it that simple? Yes it is. That simple reason could vex some people who are looking for a more sophisticated reason based on moral or values or anything else. But the very simple fact of life and rule of politics is that the police officers are paid to do their job and they will do it well so far the payers have the money to pay them. They will be loyal to the government as long as the government give them the confidence that they can be paid well and long enough. They will stop doing what are told to do if they feel that that the payment is not anymore guaranteed. Or at least until the day that some other payers can guarantee them a better, more stable payment.
Of course the government has also other way to keep their police officers loyal. Autocratic leaders are more than sufficiently creative in finding ways to help the police force justifying their actions. They use what we call propaganda or brainwash. The police officers are told by their payers that what they do is morally justified, is to protect the society, to help the people against invasion or subversion of the regime. The police are well equipped with all these motivating reasons that help them feel better when they do their job (beating and torturing, just to cite a few, the people).
But even well taught and brainwashed, if they are not paid, they will stop doing that dishonourable job straight and right away. The payment can be very various, mostly in form of money, or salary. But it can be also benefits, house, and information to have access to more benefits, social welfare for the police officers and for their family. Money can buy lot of things, including love, sex, and happiness of family life, help them to be good fathers or excellent wives. Money and loyalty can buy of course promotion, which gives them in turn more money and power.
Being paid to do to assure the regime, these police officers are part of what we call the supporter ring, or the coalition of the regime. What is the supporter ring, or the coalition?

Following the Dictator’s Handbook authored by Alastair Smith and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, any regime, dictatorship or democracy, evolves based on three groups of people, grouped in regard to their role towards the leader, or leaders in case of country leaded collectively by a board of leaders. They are the Nominal Selectorate, the Real Selectorate, and the Supporter Ring or the Winning Coalition.
The Nominal Selectorate includes everyone who has at least a legal say in choosing their leader. The Real Selectorate is the group of people that really choose the leader. And the Winning Coalition, which is a subset of the Real Selectorate, is a group of people whose support is essential for the survival of the leader. The Winning Coalition can support or overthrow the leader; they form what we call the Supporter Ring.

In Vietnam the Nominal Selectorate includes all adults that can vote. But it is good to note that they can only choose from a list chosen by the Communist Party, so their votes are not counted.
The Real Selectorate includes the members of the Communist Party. These people can also pre-select the candidates from the Party via the different internal meetings. It is the reason why they are considered as “Real” Selectorate.
The Winning Coalition includes all the members of the Party Central Committee and part of the Real Selectorate including those holding important jobs that are critical for the survival of the regime, like the police force.
Leaders of autocratic regimes take these forces, police and military, very important because they possess and use arms, an efficient tool to oppress the people and maintain the regime. It is why all members of the police and military, however low or high ranked, are also members of the ruling Communist Party. They all form part of what I call Supporters or Supporter Ring from now on.
The leaders in Vietnam are the Politburo led by the General Secretary.
We may keep asking why there are so many unfathomable things, that how autocracies are always in power around the world, that how can so many intelligent people support such a regime that oppresses, imprisons whoever dares to speak up however mildly they do. Although hated by many, that regime does always exist, and even supported by many, including intellectuals, police, army, business persons. How can they do that? How can this autocracy remain, as a mockery to our moral standard, to our reasoning?
It is because however hated by the population, a regime remains and always remains if it is supported by its core Supporters, and if these Supporters have the ultimate power of guns and money, the regime will long last, as it always boasts.

To help answer in more detail the questions above, it is worth to revise some following simple rules of politics, derived as follows from the Dictator’s Handbook. It is important to note that some of the rules below are not identical to those in the book, and the interpretation is of the author of these notes.

The first rule of politics is that we have to stop looking at leaders as symbol of values, representative of the people, and work for the people. They may have been elected to their position with all these responsibilities or overthrown other leaders and go the pinnacle of power boasting those promises. But they are all at worst liars who promised just for the sake of gaining the power. Or at best they have told the truth wholeheartedly just to discover afterwards that to stay in power; they cannot any more follow what they have promised. So cynical, but it is true.
Why? Because the first assignment, the very uttermost task at the very first second of any leader after gaining power is to cling to power and not to be overthrown by their enemies or by their close Supporters. It is solely for himself or herself. Not for the people or any good cause. The more autocratic the regime is, the rawer is the reality. To cling to power is the every second thought of leaders of autocratic regimes. If they don’t think about it, they will be finalized together with their family members. The less democratic the way the leaders go to power, the more they have to protect themselves, think about themselves and act for themselves. The people’s need is absolutely in the bottom of the task list of leader/leaders of an autocratic regime.
After all, leader is human being. And the worry for one`s security is it the most important, particularly when one went to power by means not accredited by the people?

The second rule of politics is that no leader can govern alone. A leader is before all a human being. Few of them are physically good; many of them have health problems, even mental problems. Standing alone, they are no one more than a fragile gentleman or lady. So how can they lead? Leaders lead because they have Supporters who believe in them, or put it bluntly who think that the leaders still give them the power of money and benefits.
A leader has always a ring of Supporters, or the Winning Coalition, that they need to buy and assure that they are loyal to him. He is obliged to do that. Leader’s decision is constraint by their Supporters’ will. Leader can never make decision alone.
In Vietnam, the police force is one of the most important Supporters that leaders need to buy and care for. No doubt they are well paid. Imagine the moment that the police force turn away from their task of oppressing the up-strike of the people? The regime will be overthrown. Leaders understand that risk so well; hence they find all the ways to share their gaining with the Supporters. They just simply don’t care about the people. So far that the people still survive and pay them tax, the very important source that leaders use to enjoy the luxury themselves and pay their Supporters.

The third rule is that leaders need to keep the Supporter Ring as small as possible so that they do not have to pay much. It can be a clan, a family. The smaller the Supporter Ring, the more the leaders and the Supporters can share between themselves. However, the smaller the Supporter Ring, the less stable the regime: more risk of upheaval, less power in oppression, more competitions from the close outsiders. So the task of the leaders of autocratic regime is to keep the size of the Supporter Ring small enough to not to pay them much, but also large enough so that there are not many upheavals and the oppression power can be implemented efficiently.
So far the leaders of Vietnam have done this task pretty well via the Communist Party system. There are nearly 5 millions of members of the Party that create what we call above as the Real Selectorate. Members of the Party are better treated than many other Vietnamese non-members of the Party. These 5 million plus their family member create a extended Supporter Ring that keep the long lasting Communist Party and their leaders in power.
But not all members of the Party are well treated, at least as they could expect. Only part of them who are crucial to the regime survival gain a big share of the cake: the police and the high ranked military officers. It is important to note that only higher ranked military officers are better off, soldiers in general suffer also as any Vietnamese. At the end of the day who care about soldiers? Soldiers protect the country against enemies from outside, invasion from neighbouring countries. These are not the threat to the leaders, who care more about the up strike from inside.

The fourth rule of politics is that the Nominal Selectorate (all that can vote but their votes are quasi meaningless in case of Vietnam) should be kept as big as possible. The people are given the right to vote but do not have any decision. They are rather there to pay taxes, and big part of the money goes to the Supporters. The leaders have to keep the Supporters clearly richer than the population as a way to consolidate the loyalty from the Supporters.
And how can leaders share a bigger part of cake to the Supporters? The answer is not only by higher salary, benefits, etc. (which are too visible), but also, and big part of it, is by corruption. Corruption is the best way of sharing benefits and money gained between leaders and the Supporters. So do never expect leaders of autocratic regime get rid of corruption. It is simply illogical: how can they pay Supporters not using corruption?
As stated above, the Supporter Ring in Vietnam is quite big and can extend to a big part of the Communist Party members and their family. This ring is clearly bigger than other autocratic regime where the share is only in a clan or a family. So where does the money come from to pay them all? From taxes, from corruption, from FDI, and from neighbouring country that can exert influence on the country and its leaders.

The fifth rule is “Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better”. The people are kept to survive, work and pay taxes. Nothing more than that. To work well to feed the leaders and the Supporters, the people are kept from starving; they are equipped generally with just average competence. They should not be very intelligent, should not have very good roads, and neither good communication channel to communicate between themselves. The paradox is that when the people are well informed and communicate better between themselves, they tend to work better and pay more tax to the regime. But the downside of it towards the autocratic leaders is that by being better inter-connected, the people have more ability to complain and up heave, and it is exactly what the autocratic regime does not appreciate. Autocratic leaders are skilful in regulating these needs, of course for the best of themselves.
However are the people: intelligent, well connected, have average or high competences, autocratic leaders control them by guns and violence. This is the most rudimentary and not that difficult to exercise. Imagine the situation where 5 disciplined people with arms can control a room of 100 people, or even more. There will be no upheaval if the people are aware of the risks that they face, imprisonment, violence, torturing, are too high comparing to the benefits that they still have, dragging on days after days being exploited, and keep silent. Autocratic regimes know how to let the people aware of these risks.
The only way that a change can succeed is for some reasons the 5 people leave their arms or loose their fists, which is not always a prospect. Then what needs to be done?

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