Fukuyama (1989) was right: a centuries-old argument about government should be over. Liberal democracy is the best regime known to us. It isn’t close: for life’s important aspects, including health, wealth, liberty, and peace, democracy dominates all known alternatives. Empirically, however, the argument is not over. Indeed, there is widespread concern that many citizens (and, sadly, some academics) are less enthusiastic about democracy than the evidence warrants. I argue that when we search for solutions to complex problems (e.g., the design of governments) we often make a serious error in our mental representation of the choice problem: instead of using the criterion of the best feasible option, we ignore important constraints and look for an alternative that satisfies certain value-standards. When these standards are unrealistic, as they often are, we can become disillusioned with the best possible option. Robert Michels was wrong; Voltaire, and Henny Youngman, were right.
Jonathan Bendor is the Walter and Elise Haas Professor of Political Economy and Organizations at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.His research focuses on models of adaptive behavior and bounded rationality, evolutionary analyses of norms and preferences, organizational decision making under uncertainty, and the modernization of bureaucracy. Most of his current research is on organizational problem solving, with a particular focus on institutional methods for easing or finessing the cognitive constraints faced by individual decision makers. He is working on a book on the evolution of modern problem solving in military organizations.Bendor was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1999-2000 and in 2004-2005. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.