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Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the logic of political survival and the two faces of King Leopold II of Belgium

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.

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12 comments to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the logic of political survival and the two faces of King Leopold II of Belgium

  • dearieme

    “the British monarchy in the 11th century”: the what?

  • dearieme has a point, there was no British monarchy in the 11th century. There was barely even an english one.

  • Try saying that to William the Conqueror!

  • Stephan

    I had always commented to anyone that could bear to listen on how foriegn aid, instead of doing any much vaunted good, actually is the worst of all things for Africa, not so much because it causes the people of the relelvant countries to lose their will to work and produce, but, far more dangerously, it causes their rulers to lose the will to run a prosperous nation. They get billions from the west, so why bother enouraging the formation of an economy in their own countries! Instead they murder and plunder at will, thus totally devastating their own countries with no need to regard future consequences.

  • nic

    But isn’t that more a case of “you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if your don’t”. I mean I don’t think withdrawing aid from these countries would cause their rulers to behave any better. So while we can doubt the benefit of foreign aid, I am not sure you can claim it is instrumental in causing bad governance.

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    At least withdrawing foreign aid forces the hands of corrupt/incompetent rulers, and on top of that, if the foreign aid is propping them up, it removes that support as well. If they don’t change their ways, as nic posits, it can’t last long, at least.

    If the foreign aid isn’t getting to the people, what’s the point anyway (not to mention that it’s our money our politicians are giving away)?

  • Stuart

    “every leader, no matter what the system, tries to stay in office and prosper”

    That may be true for Britain’s “Prostitutional Monarchy’ but not here; the Prez gets two terms and hits the road.

  • SK Peterson

    But Stuart, it’s only once you’ve achieved the pinnacle of power in the US that you have limitations placed upon you. Who are the most talked about presidential contenders in the upcoming ’08 elections – a gaggle of senators, a few governors, and a former vice-president – almost all of whom are career politicians. Even former presidents, who no longer have a formal role, play a substantial role in public life. Unless you count that shrinking violet, Bill Clinton. What ever happened to him? You never hear a thing about him.

  • Paul

    James Bucannan, Nobel, “Public Choice”, google, read.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Leopold faced a different system at home from what he faced in Africa – so he had to be a Constitutional Monarch in Belgium but not in the Congo.

    In the Congo there were plenty of tribesmen he could hire who were prepared to do anything to “get the job done”.

    Of course these tribesmen had robbed, raped and murdered before Leopold’s representatives turned up, and continued to do so after the Beligums left.

    Indeed about the only time they did not was when the Congo was under the direct rule of the Belgium Parliament – from 1908 to 1960.

    But modern people do not like to be informed of this.

    However, the Belgium government did carry on the policy of “developing” the Congo.

    Modern weapons may not be needed for mass murder (cutting tools can be used to kill hundreds of thousands – as has often be shown in history), but roads and railways are a useful way of getting large numbers of people through the jungle.

    And getting large numbers of people through the jungle is not always a good thing.

    Now is the transport of goods always a good thing – for example it may be a matter of moving plunder to support an expanded city mob population.

    The “Little Englanders” argued against imperialism on the grounds that it both tended to make a loss (which British colonies normally did – perhaps because the British, contrary to what is now taught, tended not to plunder after an area was under Imperial control) and because traditional Chiefs would tend to govern best than falsely Westernized Africans.

    In spite of the great work of men like Lord Lugard (ignored or attacked today) the Little Englanders were most likely correct.

    Although Lugard and others would have said “if we do not take over, someone like Leopold will”.

  • Brian

    Off Topic:

    Hello, chaps. I’m having a slight problem with your admirable site; the page I get from it appears to be stuck at August the 16th. Any idea what I can do about it?

    Editors note: our site is fine, you just need to clear your browser cache.

  • Brian

    Thanks, chaps. That’s done the trick.