7 Habits of Highly Effective Tyrants

Or, I Read A Really Long Book And Wanted To Tell You About it.

Over the festive period I read Robert Caro's The Power Broker.

The Power Broker is a biography of Robert Moses — and if you don't know who Robert Moses is, you should probably read the Wikipedia entry before you even contemplate starting the book — but many people have viewed it as a meditation on power, something which would carry over to Caro's subsequent door-stoppers on Lyndon Johnson.

So effective is Caro's analysis that it is hard (despite Moses' many obnoxious tendencies) not to read the book as a sort of instruction manual for anyone who wants to become a bureaucratic in-fighter.

Here are the seven lessons I identified for people working in large bureaucratic organisations:

  1. When pitching for projects as part of a hierarchical organisation, under-estimate the cost of projects to get them funded. Then, when costs over-run, exploit the sunk-cost fallacy. ("He hardly bothered to conceal the technique… because the Board had left itself open to political blackmail by approving earlier fund requests without adequately checking them, it was helpless to deny him later requests and thereby allow him to charge that it had wasted the public's money by building only part of a project", p. 477)
  2. Compile compromising information on anyone who could stop you. ("No one could dwell long in the inner circles of New York politics without knowing about Moses' files, the dossiers he had compiled on the men with whom he had to deal… deeds and incorporation certificates, … the record of real estate transactions" p. 728).
  3. Acquire multiple independent sources of power. These should ideally be overlapping with respect to area, but institutionally or temporally independent. ("Firing Moses would not… remove Moses from power… [NYC Mayor Robert F.] Wagner could fire him as Slum Clearance Committee chairman, Park Commissioner and Construction Coordinator. He couldn't fire him from his five state posts… or from his Triborough Authority chairmanship.. he had handed Moses a fresh six-year term just a year before", p. 1056)
  4. Where there are multiple veto players, tell each veto player privately that you have the others' consent ("When Board approval of a project was absolutely essential… he would whipsaw it by stating that the WPA had agreed to finance the project and urging them to grab the money while it was available… At the same time he would be assuring the WPA that city approval was assured and the land was therefore available, an argument that persuaded the WPA, anxious for fast results, to give its approval", p. 476)
  5. Always be shovel ready ("Moses knew.. it was the state with plans, not vague proposals but detailed blueprints, ready when federal appropriations became available, that got the federal money", p. 1132)
  6. Monopolise expertise ("the press was… hampered by its necessary reliance on 'expert opinion', most of which was controlled by Moses", p. 988).
  7. Write your legal agreements yourself and exploit people's laziness. (Impossible to excerpt: see all of chapter 10).

I'm not sure what can best be done to counter these tactics. (3) and (6) suggest that centres of power and expertise should be dispersed. (2) suggests that we should ignore and deprive of power people who constantly play the man and not the ball. But given that (1), (4) and (7) are based on people being lazy and not wanting to look bad, it's hard to know what to say. Which I am sure was Moses' intention.