Having recently become a struggling podcaster myself, I have been paying a lot more attention than I otherwise would to podcasters who sound like they have got past the struggling stage. And of all the podcasts I have heard, the one that has impressed me most in recent weeks has been this one, in which Russell Roberts interviews Bruce Bueno de Mesquita.
At Cafe Hayek, where I first learned about it, Roberts describes this podcast thus:
According to Bruce’s worldview, every leader, no matter what the system, tries to stay in office and prosper. The relentless application of this simple idea turns out to have very interesting implications for foreign aid, the relief of poverty around the world and about a thousand other things. Bruce has a big brain with a lot of interesting things to say. It’s a very long podcast (about an hour and a half) and it opens with a fairly intense discussion of the theories in Bruce’s book. From there he talks about a wide range of applications.
And at EconTalk, Roberts writes:
This lengthy and intense conversation covers a wide range of topics including the evil political genius of Lenin, the dark side of US foreign aid, the sinister machinations of King Leopold of Belgium, the natural resource curse, the British monarchy in the 11th century, term limits and the inevitable failure of the standard methods of fighting world poverty.
King Leopold II of Belgium is a particularly revealing example.
Bruce Bueno (is that a proper shortening of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita? – comments welcome) notes the two very different ways in which, on the one hand, democratically and constitutionally constrained rulers in modern European states, in which leaders depend on the support of many voters, and on the other hand, despots who depend for their political survival on a much smaller group of supporters, whom they can thus afford to bribe with resources stolen from the people or dug out of the ground, behave. In the latter case, there is no place for “public good” policies, because these threaten the survival of the ruler by dispersing the power to make trouble for him. But in countries like mine – and yours (?) – too many people must support the leader for him to be able to survive with pure bribery, and he must instead resort to, you know, governing quite well, or trying to. Taxes that are not too onerous, roads without too many pot-holes, non contemptible schools and hospitals, free trade, etc..
Now, the interesting thing about King Leopold II of Belgium is that he, Bruce Bueno tells us, was both types of ruler simultaneously.
In Africa, King Leopold was a classic African despot, plundering his territory shamelessly for personal gain, murdering millions, and suitably rewarding the unsavory and relatively small gang of thugs and thieves who ran this ghastly system.
I had always assumed that Belgium’s late nineteenth century and hence subsequent twentieth century prosperity was based on this African plunder and slaughter, but, says Bruce Bueno, not so. King Leopold II personally became obscenely wealthy as a result of his African depradations. But Belgium as a whole got rich, on an economic scale far more massive than mere African plunder could possibly explain, because it came to be very well governed, by King Leopold II. In particular, it switched to free trade. King Leopold II reigned from 1865 to his death in 1909. He had, in Belgium, quite a lot of power, but wished he had a lot more. He bitterly resented the constraints he faced. But, these constraints were a fact of life which he had to live with, and he did what he had to do to keep himself firmly in command of what power he had, which was to govern Belgium really quite well. Simply, too many Belgians influenced the decision about whether he should remain King for him to be able to bribe them all in the African manner.
Which nicely makes Bruno Bueno’s point. Leopold II, pursuer of ultimate and permanent power whenever and wherever he could find it, was able to let rip in Africa, but not in Belgium. Her was a civilised Belgian ruler not because he liked his fellow Belgians and welcomed their massed and massive influence over him. He hated it. He just did, in Belgium, what he had to do. The environment made the difference.
Countries are governed the way they are, not because the politicians in some countries are intrinsically more greedy and corrupt than they are in other countries, or for that matter because people in different countries differ in their willingness to accept tyranny, but because different countries differ in the constraints they place upon rulers.
The podcast in which this and many other implications (I especially liked the stuff about foreign aid) of Bruce Bueno’s way of thinking is explicated is not short; it lasts nearly an hour and a half. But I do warmly recommend it to anyone who can spare that kind of time. I have heard several podcasts lately which have occupied far less time but which felt a lot longer than this one did.