Book review: The Logic of Political Survival, by Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson, and James D. Morrow, 2003 (550 pages).

Vladimir Putin in a joint news conference with the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö

“This belief in the desire to hold power leads us to theorize about the interdependence between institutions of governance and questions related to political survival, a topic that has received limited attention in the literature on political institutions” – Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al. (2005, p. 16)

One of the questions to which this work answers is based out of the premise that political survival depends on followers’ support, so one puzzle is: what keeps autocratic leaders, who more often than not, bring less security and prosperity to their constituents, longer in power than their democratic counterparts?; i.e. often (but not always) bad policies boost political survival. The findings of the authors contribute to multiple fields (IR, Comparative Politics, War Studies, Political-Economics, Sociology of Organizations, etc.), but this complicates the digestion of the material.

They discuss works such as Hobbes’ Leviathan or The Matter, Form and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil, and Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, to sustain their theories; e.g.: “Our theory challenges Hobbes’s view that an absolute sovereign -the Leviathan- is the best form of governance, while also probing and questioning the perspectives of Machiavelli […] about the virtues of republics.” (Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow, 2003: xi). However, by doing so they miss other interpretations of what makes up good governance practices. They apply a mathematical-statistical method to test their ideas.

By building on Hobbes observation that life in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes [1651] 1996: chap. 13, p.89), and on Machiavelli’s idea that “individual liberty provided by a republic over the corruption of monarchy” (as cited in Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003: p. 3) is preferable, the authors address three puzzles (the first one already mentioned):

  1. “Why is that as democrats offer their citizens more peace and, by some accounts, more prosperity than autocrats, these (autocrats) last in office about twice as long, on average, as do democrats?” (Ibid., p. 5).
  2. “Why would any authoritarian state adopt universal adult suffrage as part of its political system?” (Ibid., p. 6)
  3. “Can the choice to produce peace and prosperity or war and misery be shown to follow from the same factors that influence preferences for government institutions and the time leaders survive in office?” (Ibid., p.7)

Two pillar ideas in this book are those of the selectorate and of the winning coalitions, which they elaborate on, under the theory of the selectorate. According to their findings a winning coalition of supporters is at the base of political survival, however the size (more considered in their research) and form (less mentioned) of that coalition affects the political-economical formula of governance (policies and institutions).

Three arguments of this book caught my attention:

  1. Political leaders need to hold office to accomplish any goal. Every leader answers to some group that keeps her in power: her winning coalition.
  2. In a democracy, W (winning coalitions) are large, whilst in autocracies, winning coalitions are small (both cases in relation to the size of S).
  3. A smaller W favours kleptocracy.
In Mexico, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) did not spend “more” to remain in power, however it did it for 71 consecutive years (1929-2000)

Another interesting part of the book is the discussion of the role of the IMF and of the World Bank in bailing out governments (leaders) out of financial crisis, they imply that the problem is that by doing that, these institutions obstruct reform and foster corruption.

The case selection seems to be made to favour the conclusions of the research and not to justify the general application of the theory; since the cited examples “fit” the arguments, hypothesis and theories fail to show general operationalisation of the work. This is particularly applicable in the extension of the work towards war. i.e. the hypothesis that “Defeat in war increases the odds that a leader will be deposed.” and “This risk is much higher if the defeated leader heads a large-coalition polity” (Bueno de Mesquita et al., p. 455) applies well to the cited example of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Benito Mussolini, and even Francisco Franco examples, but fails to stand in the cases of Napoléon Bonaparte, and other leaders in which defeat, turned into victory at some points.

In conclusion, this work is as contributing as the limits imposed by the authors of the study. Within its demarcations (variables), this book answers more than satisfactorily to the posed puzzles, however, its generalisation and applicability comes into question, because of the same reasons. Perhaps political survival is a case-by-case an object of study, and the essence of strategy is precisely the adaptation of different courses of action, according to multiple factors, which depends on time and space of occurrence.


Bueno de Mesquita, Bruno, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson, and James Morrow. 2003. The Logic of Political Survival, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003, ISBN-13 978-0-262-52440-7.

Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1996. Leviathan. Ed. Richard Tuck. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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