The Five Rules of Power Politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Machiavelli was a very smart guy who, by the way, wrote The Prince in the hope of attracting employment. He failed to get the job.  He was a little too nice, not quite tough enough. 

So most people who are familiar with Machiavelli are familiar with the views he expressed in The Prince.  Not so many people seem to have read his discourses where he thought that the best form of government is a more republican form of government, that is a democracy in our modern terms, and while I certainly agree that from the perspective of the folks on the street it’s far and away the best form of government, from the perspective of a leader, somebody who wants to hold onto power, it’s the worst form of government because it puts you at the greatest risk of losing power.  So in The Dictator’s Handbook we go well beyond Machiavelli’s understanding to layout precisely what leads you to hold onto power and precisely what ties the hands of a democrat in trying to do the things that dictators also do.

Let’s start with what the five rules of politics are.  First, you want to depend on as few people as possible to keep you in power.  I'm going to come back to that because it ties very closely to the second.  

Second, you want the pool of people you could call upon to fill the role of that small group, that pool, to be as large as possible.  That way,the folks who are in the small group that keep you in power know that if they are wayward, if they begin to back somebody else or they’re not willing to do the things that you the leader ask them to do they know they’re easily replaced.  Often, especially journalists make the mistake of looking at rigged election systems, such as Lennon introduced in the Soviet Union, and mistakenly believing that somehow because there are elections this confers legitimacy.  That is a very silly idea because, after all, everybody already knows the outcome of the election before it happens, so how could it be legitimate?  The function of having universal suffrage in a rigged system is exactly to signal the folks in the inner circle, the people you’re rewarding, that hey, you are easily replaced, you better do what I want.

Third rule, so you’ve got as small a group as possible drawn from as big a pool as possible.  You want to tax the people as highly as you can because you want revenue to enrich yourself and to bribe your cronies.  Taxing the people as highly as you can, there are two constraints.  You don’t want to tax so much that people prefer taking siestas to doing work because the objective of the tax, of course, is to generate money for you.  If the people aren’t working then they’re not going to generate money for the leader.  And second, you don’t want to tax to the point that people calculate that you know things are so bad I might as well revolt, I can’t be worse off.  So you want to tax as much as possible as long as people keep working and don’t revolt. 

You want to distribute the minimum amount of that revenue that you can get away with to keep your coalition loyal to you, not deciding to back somebody else.  And the reason you want to give them as little as you can, subject to the constraint that they not join somebody else, is you want as much of the money left over for your own discretion as possible.  

And with the money that you need to use to keep your coalition loyal you don’t want to be spending that money instead on benefiting the people because the people don’t keep you in office. 

In rewarding the coalition how do you reward them?  Well there are basically two ways to reward people.  You can produce good public policy that is, in technical terms, a public good.  That’s something that everybody gets to enjoy.  Or you could be producing private rewards just to the coalition.  The key difference in what democrats and dictators do is that democrats, much to their regret, have to depend on a very large coalition to keep them in power.  It’s just too expensive to bribe millions of people with private rewards, so democrats are compelled by their desire to stay in power to produce good public policy.  The smaller the coalition the more efficient it is to buy loyalty with private goods instead of public goods.  All leaders produce private goods.  It’s just a question of the relative mix of private and public.  The bigger the coalition the more public goods; the smaller the coalition the mix favors private goods.

Now leaders may have revenue left over.  If they have a small coalition and they pay just enough, they may have money left over at their discretion and there are basically two things they can do with that money.  They can sock it away in a secret bank account--very popular with the world’s kleptocrats--or they could be civic-minded.  Now when you depend on a small coalition and you’re civic-minded, you as well divide, crassly put, into two groups.  So you might be somebody like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or Deng Xiaoping in China who has really good ideas about how to spend money to build an economy and might make the folks of the country well off.

On the other hand you might be Mao Zedong, the old Soviet leader; Nikita Khrushchev, the old Ghanaian leader; Kwame Nkrumah.  He stole a bit, but most of these guys didn’t steal as much as they could have.  They seem to have been civic-minded.  They seem to have wanted to improve the welfare of their citizens, but they had remarkably bad ideas about how to go about doing it and so they made their citizens worse off.  One of the nice features of democracy, depending on a large coalition, is the leader can’t wander very far from what a significant number of voters want and so policy is less variable, more predictable.  Growth rates aren’t higher, but they are steadier. Those are the five rules of governance. 

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

 

Democracy, says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, is the worst form of government from the leader's perspective.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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