Review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom

I am grateful to Douglas Kries (2019) for his review of Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom.  Kries is not in my camp, but a critical review is not only better than none, it offers an occasion for further reflection.

Kries notes that I am critical of neoliberalism, of money in politics and the oligarchical tendencies to which it gives rise, and of neoliberal leaders like Thatcher, Reagan, Pinochet and Trump. “The obvious rejoinder to Cameron’s critique of neoliberalism or free markets is that he does not seriously address the question of the importance of freedom. The American Founders, and others, thought that self-government was a good thing because through it citizen legislators, chosen by their fellow citizens, were able to exercise autonomy and advance liberty. Prudence was surely valuable to them, but they did not think they had to surrender governmental decision-making to a small group of elites in order to promote it. It is not clear that Cameron has thought through the implications his claims have for the idea of liberty.”

I find this objection puzzling since it is not clear why  prudence (or phronesis) should be opposed either to freedom or to self-government, and indeed full chapter of the book was devoted to the idea of development as freedom as understood by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. One could link free markets to political freedom, as neoliberal thinkers often do, but I find these arguments deeply problematic both in theory and practice (suffice it to mention the role of the Chicago Boys, including Friedman and Hayek, in Chile). More fundamentally, neoliberal prescriptions can undermine autonomy and liberty by inhibiting collective action in defense of the protection of rights and freedoms.

I think the more interesting point made by Kries is that Aristotle may not be relevant to contemporary pluralist societies. “The problem in recovering Aristotle’s notion for modern politics quickly comes to sight, however, as a disagreement about ends. In a ‘pluralistic’ age, there is no agreement about ends, or at least little agreement, and Aristotle is clear that if we get the ends wrong, prudential decision-making is just shrewdness or cleverness.” I think this is a very interesting problem.  “Cameron is to be credited with seeing the problem” says Kries. “He does not want to adopt an openly teleological position like Aristotle, however, as that would be opposed to ‘value pluralism,’ which he does not want to abandon. He tries to split the difference with what he calls ‘ethical convergence’ (75). He does not develop this position extensively, but apparently what he means is that the current pluralism of goods that we encounter in modern politics is ultimately destined to converge in a certain small set of goods.”

The first point I would make is that this problem is not limited to virtue ethics. The fact that in a pluralistic society there will always be differences with respect to the good creates profound challenges for political theory and practice.  Similar problems arise when we take a rights-based approach. Pluralistic societies are often divided on rights (consider abortion, sexual diversity, minority rights, and so forth). The fact that rights evolve, and that they conflict, and thus upholding rights is often a matter of balancing different rights-based claims, is not a good reason to suggest that there is something wrong with rights. Some rights become deeply entrenched, widely accepted, and robustly enforced, while others are more contested.  In other words, it is not clear to me how finding agreement on what is good is any different, in principle, from balancing rights. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that more work has been done to understand rights and how to balance them in countries like Canada and the US. A similar argument could be made about utilitarianism, but it is a feeble defense of an argument to suggest that other theories fare no better.  So a more productive response is to develop the idea of convergence on the good.

We already agree on many common goods. As Andrew Yuengert says, “I think the case for despair over agreement on basic goods is overstated. We have more in common than we admit. If human flourishing were not a shared reality, we could not talk about people doing well or poorly in life, making good and bad decisions.” Common goods are not merely a matter of taste or preference. A good teacher will be able to educate her pupils more than a mediocre one. The good in question is the imparting of skills and knowledge to the pupil. Despite pluralism, any practice can be performed well or badly, and we generally recognize such differences. Indeed, our society can scarcely function without recognizing these differences.

Consider the pandemic: most publics had little difficulty recognizing that “flattening the epidemic curve” was a good worth pursuing. Public health measures are necessary to ensure our society flourishes. We also have a common interest in the capacity of our fellow citizens to transform resources at their disposal into improved functioning. The idea of investing in human capabilities rests on the idea that people are better off when they have acquired the skills and knowledge necessary to flourish. The insight is captured by the old saw: it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish.  If this is true, then what we are saying is that one gets closer to a good life when one has certain capabilities. A flourishing society demands investments in human capabilities.

The acquisition of moral skill and will is a developmental process. It involves culturally transmitted language and tools, the ability to use evidence and logic in reasoning, and the security and leisure time necessary to exercise citizenship rights. On simply cannot engage actively and fully in democratic self-government unless one has acquired a full set of capabilities, and these do not appear out of nowhere.

It is worth noting that these argument are in tension with neoliberalism. The human capabilities approach explicitly rejects the presumption that markets are sufficient to generate the goods we need to flourish. The idea that goods are not a matter of taste is anathema to any theory that assumes preferences must be given and not questioned. And the kind of policies necessary to ensure the full exercise of citizenship rights require a far more robust role for the state than neoliberalism allows.



Cameron, Maxwell A.  Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Kries, Douglas. (2019). Review of Maxwell A. Cameron, Political Institutions and Practical Wisdom: Between Rules and Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xi, 215.). The Review of Politics, 81(4), 695-697. doi:10.1017/S0034670519000433

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