Rules for Rulers

Delivered on 6/2/17 in Stuart, FL
Adapted from CGP Grey's video "Rules for Rulers"


Why do tyrants commit atrocities and remain in power? Why do politicians lie and cheat and obstruct and keep getting reelected? And why do the leaders that do the most good have the shortest time in office?


The Dictator's Handbook looks at politics not as it SHOULD be but rather as it IS. It suggests the political game boils down to 3 rules for rulers, and that’s what we’ll explore today.

Let's say you want to be a ruler over a nation. The easiest way to do that is to become a dictator. You'll start by following...

Rule #1: Secure the support of the keys to power. (Repeat after me, “Secure the Support.”) No man rules alone. A leader can't build the roads alone, mine for gold alone, or defend the country alone. The people who can get those things done are called your keys to power. With their obedience, your control is unstoppable, but without them, you are nothing. For a dictatorship, you might need a few generals, the police force, and some bureaucrats. They’ll do your bidding because you’ll follow...

Rule #2: (Repeat after me) Control the treasure. Your supporters will want to get their paycheck, and it is your job to take the money from the people and distribute it amongst yourself and the keys. You can build roads and schools and hospitals with that money, but only as long as the keys get their cut. But beware: every dime you spend on good deeds weakens your power. A rival could come along and promise that money to the keys, and they will gladly replace you. Which brings me to...

Rule #3: (Repeat after me) Minimize the keys. Many key supporters with competing needs are harder to manage, so you need to shrink the pool of people you depend on. A key person to gain power isn’t always the same person needed to maintain power. To keep the essentials happy, you have to eliminate the non-essentials. “You’re fired!” That means more money for those that matter, and fewer people to worry about. And these are the 3 basic rules.

Quick example: Fidel Castro was a master at being dictator. He followed rule #1 (secure support) when he convinced the Cuban army to turn their backs on the Batista regime. Then came rule #2 (control the treasure) declaring Cuba a communist country: from each according to his ability, to each according to his party loyalty. Then he practiced rule #3 (minimize the keys) his whole life, executing fellow revolutionaries,  including his right-hand man Che Guevara.

Politics is dirty business. Even if you try to do good for your country, someone who follows the rules better than you do will come along and replace you.

Still, hoping to be a good leader, you turn to democracy, where power is won with words, not with force. Leaders have to compromise with representatives, and power is fractured among the masses. These  ruthless rules don’t apply. Right?

Wrong. Democratic rulers follow the same rules. See if any of these sound familiar to you.

Rule #1: Secure the support. Instead of a dozen generals, democratic leaders need a majority of voters. If you want to be a powerful democratic ruler, you just have to treat the people as blocks -- businessmen, farmers, minorities, homeowners. Reward enough of these blocks with your policies and you will elected. To stay in power, you have to follow...

Rule #2: Control the treasure. A dictator can tell the army to snatch away crops from farmers or gold from miners. In a democracy, the preferred way to steal from people is taxation. It's no accident that the tax code in all modern democracies is complex and convoluted--that’s done on purpose. The tax system takes money away from blocks that don't swing elections and reward preferred blocks through tax breaks and loopholes. To tighten control, we move on to...

Rule #3: Reduce the number of keys. Unlike a dictator, a democratic ruler can't just murder their keys.. Instead, you have many strategies to curtail the power of the people: pass laws limiting who CAN and cannot vote, redraw districts to break up powerful blocks, and hold primaries with complicated rules that limit the choices voters have. Does any of this ring a bell?

This game exists and it rewards those who play it best. If you ever get a turn, how will you play the game of politics?