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The Free Market Existentialist by William Irwin

Alberto Giordano is left unsatisfied at an attempt to wed evolution, capitalism, and existentialism.

Sartre meeting Darwin meeting Nozick? Too many angles, I’d think, at least for the mainstream philosophy student. But William Irwin is not afraid of the conversation of philosophers, and challenges the reader to follow him through a tour de force whose goal is to show us that “capitalism and existentialism are compatible” and hence that “a minimal state with a truly free market would be a worthy option.” But wait. There’s not just a connection between capitalism and existentialism here; Irwin also shows us “the unexpected connection between existentialism and evolutionary theory.” This is an evolutionary theory that tells us that there are no moral facts – a premise that, in turn, leads to Irwin’s avowal of the minimal state conducive to capitalism.

Let us examine each connection in turn. First, existentialism highlights individual responsibility over collective action. To Irwin it is a philosophy which reacts to “an apparently absurd and meaningless world” by urging individuals to “overcome alienation, oppression and despair through freedom and self-creation” (p.12). The existentialist, living without higher meaning, recognizing that anguish and despair are common to us all, believes yet in free will. The existentialist individual focuses on her own choices, and struggles ceaselessly to achieve her plans.

This is not quite the usual portrait of existentialism, which is why Irwin devotes his second chapter to showing how Sartre’s existential philosophy, among others, may be compatible with his line of argumentation. He does so primarily through his emphasis on individual liberty. A revisionist outlook is offered suggesting that Sartre’s vision of liberty framed in Being and Nothingness (1943) was a hymn to the individual, then deconstructing the links between that conception of freedom and Marxism expressed in Sartre’s later works, such as the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). On Irwin’s reading, Sartre underwent a philosophical shift because of a pro-collectivist intellectual fashion spreading widely over Europe during and after the Forties.

Sartre’s evident belief in autonomy and self-reliance does seem much more suited to free market capitalism than to collectivism. Besides, existentialism correctly understood might force capitalism to get rid of its nasty perversions, such as crass consumerism, greed, and the alienation due to unsatisfactory jobs. Capitalism without Consumerism is the promise with which Irwin tempts us in the subtitle of the book, and – good fortune! – existentialism can help “to define ourselves as individuals and to resist being defined by external forces” (p.71). In addition, in a mass society, the existentialist may be moved by prudence and enlightened self-interest to pursue a kind of “voluntary simplicity” as an antidote to “conspicuous consumption” (p.75), just as the author himself is, apparently. Irwin cites prudence and enlightened self-interest as two main drivers for change.

Both may be described as non-moral virtues. Indeed, in Chapters Four and Five, he tries to persuade us that there are no such things as moral facts, only moral habits shaped by evolution and human interaction. Morality, then, does not rely upon God or any fixed idea of human nature. Rather, both human nature and morality are fluid and unbounded save by physiological limits. And if a kind of ‘core morality’ does exist, it is made up of those basic taboos required for the preservation of the species, and it’s recognized as such all over the world. Even though occasionally “all we can do is override them in some cases” (p.126) – when they threaten to curb our legitimate desires.

How does the existentialist deal with this ethical chaos? Quite well, thanks. Because of its emphasis on authenticity and individual commitment, existentialism can, and should, act as a guide for human action. Irwin writes, “the only standard by which an action can ultimately be judged is: can you live with it?” (p.122). If someone objects that this amoralism (as it is commonly called) would probably lead to undesirable behavior, his reply is that, yes, some individuals will react “like a group of students who go away to college… free from parental control for the first time,” but the overwhelming majority will behave “in a way that is best and healthiest for themselves and others” (p.117).

Moral anti-realism, the idea that there are no objective moral facts, here acts as a bridge between existentialism and libertarianism. In fact, in the last part of his book, Irwin depicts the political choices a moral anti-realist existentialist could (but not necessarily should) make. Property rights, in this view, are to be esteemed sacred, but not natural, since only contracts can sanction them. (This follows from the chain of thought: No God – no values – no human nature – no natural rights.) Unfortunately, under the reign of amoralism, “even with a contract one is bound only by non-moral prudence to honor the contract and the rights and obligations it established” (p.136); and someone could not feel bound at all. A need then arises for a minimal state, to help establish each other’s property claims, and otherwise maintain order and stability. Nothing more, nothing less. No distributive justice is implied – “because things such as wealth and beauty don’t need to be distributed” (p.144); nor equality of opportunities – because “there is no such thing as equality” (save equality under the rule of law). Accordingly, there is also no progressive taxation, but rather a simple equal tax for everyone, which follows from the state being “a club in which we pay dues for benefits” and “as long as we receive the same benefits, we should pay the same amount in dues” (p.168). To achieve this minimal state we’d only need to “downsize the military by 50% and completely eliminate welfare” (p.169). In the case that someone feels unsatisfied with even this level of freedom, she could leave the minimal state to jump back into the state of nature, or join other less-demanding communities.

The end. And here we are.

I must confess that while taking my journey into Prof Irwin’s book I came to wonder repeatedly, ‘Why did he put together this patchwork?’ Trying to reconcile existentialism, Darwinism, moral anti-realism and free market libertarianism is a charming idea but a dirty job. It has required Irwin to build his own picture of the intellectual movements and philosophers to which he refers – for example, “my own personal Nietzsche”, who “loves the free market for its tendency to produce greatness” (p.85). At some points the reader is forced to suspect that there are no clear connections binding all those approaches together. Although the author makes clear from the beginning that his goal is just to assess whether this set of ideas are well-suited, we are often left with a sense of disappointment or skepticism. Besides, even if we allow the general perspective, few reasons are given to help us understand the particulars, at times, no articulate reason at all. For instance, how an existentialist who “is compelled to do work that is dull, repetitive and potentially alienating…can make meaning and soar above her fate” or by what means “we remain free to reject jobs that we find alienating” (pp.66, 68); or what strategy we should follow to “reject the commercial world without rejecting the free market” (p.75); or precisely how the free market existentialist should handle the suggestion that “our individual task is to find a way of life that will help us in achieving our chosen purposes” (p.124); or precisely why “markets do not necessarily require governments, and governments certainly do not create markets” (p.166). I could quote more.

In sum, the book may be read more as an exuberant expression of personal taste, preferences, and character than a systematic argument. Although invoking others to join the club and open debates, Irwin seems more interested in producing a fully-fledged apology of his own lifestyle, choices and beliefs than in providing the academic community with a well-grounded and theoretically compelling synthesis. The book will certainly find admirers and lovers. As for myself, I am quite sorry not to join this amoral, yet possibly happy, brigade.

© Dr Alberto Giordano 2016

Alberto Giordano lectures in Political Rhetoric at the University of Genoa.

The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism, by William Irwin, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, £14.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-119-12128-2

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