The Free Market Existentialist is about the reasons why Libertarianism and Existentialism do not usually seem to go together, but argues that they should.
William Irwin takes pains to establish a working definition of Existentialism, while admitting the existence of potential detractors to this definition:
“Existentialism is a philosophy that reacts to an apparently absurd or meaningless world by urging the individual to overcome alienation, oppression, and despair through freedom and self-creation in order to become a genuine person.”
The reason so many people, Libertarians and non-Libertarians alike, do not take interest in Existentialism is its alleged relationship with Marxism and socialism. But Irwin demonstrates that this connection is merely accidental and not necessary.
The lion’s share of credit for the philosophy has gone to Jean Paul Sartre, who later went on to become a Marxist. Irwin suggests, though, that he was such an unorthodox Marxist that his ideas were not immediately accepted by the Marxists, and vice versa. Sartre was attempting to reconcile social justice with a philosophy based on the self-definition of the individual. He didn’t know how to account for things like empathy, and the fact that not everyone is born with an equal set of talents, physical capabilities, or status and resources. How could someone say they are truly free, when a blind man is born with a clear limitation on a type of freedom others enjoy?
Irwin argues that Existentialism was never a philosophy that said people have the freedom of outcome, but merely freedom to choose. A person that could never compete because they lack the talent for something or the physical capability still has the freedom to try. The consequence of actions on the part of the actor and on the part of the reactor are irrelevant to the freedom Existentialism urges the individual to pursue.
What I really appreciated about the first part of this book was the effort to distinguish between capitalism and consumerism. This has been an important concept to me, and it was refreshing to see that this idea is shared by others. One other, anyway.
Basically, the mindless consumption and acquisition of products and things by itself is the action of an individual that has chosen to disregard his individuality. Believing that one has to buy things simply because everyone is buying them, or own things that increase a person’s status, is the behavior of a collectivist. In Existentialist terms, a person is guilty of “bad faith” if their lifestyle is not aiding their goal of self-definition and self-creation.
After describing what Existentialism is and explaining why it is, in fact, incompatible with Marxism, he could have skipped a few chapters and just gotten to the connection with capitalism. This connection comes, but not until he has made the case for Moral Anti-Realism, the argument against the existence of an objective morality or of clear moral facts.
Being a Deist, this part of the book did not appeal much to me. I understand all of the arguments, but I don’t think Moral Anti-Realism is a prerequisite for connecting Existentialism and capitalism. Maybe I’m practicing bad faith to believe in a God I cannot prove the existence of, but neither can Irwin prove that man has any free will at all. He seems to be aware of the threat of evolutionary biology to Existentialism, and so he casually skirts the issue by awarding Moral Anti-Realism with a nod.
If he can explain away our impulses for certain codes of morality using evolutionary biology (such as being genetically predisposed to abhor the torture of small children, because care for the young is evolutionarily advantageous), then he may as well explain away free will altogether and embrace Determinism.
Personally, I think the existence of an objective morality would be proof that there is a God. In that sense, Moral Anti-Realism is consistent with Atheism. However, I remain unconvinced by Iriwin’s evidence that this is the case. Again, he seems to be aware of the fact that cultures all over the world seem to have the same core morality on a few subjects, but this does not seem compelling enough to him. To him, it is perfectly conceivable that an entirely different human race could have evolved with an affinity for the torture of small children. With his logic, there’s no reason to think this couldn’t be true. That alternate humanity would be predisposed to accept and possibly even enjoy it.
I just ask: so why didn’t we evolve that way? Again, this is where we are expected to take a leap of faith and just assume that, because it is possible, nothing about our evolutionary biology says anything about us as people, or about the Universe. I disagree.
We evolved this way for a reason. We are social for a reason, and we have empathy for a reason. If an alternate race of totally self-interested “I’ve got mine” homo sapiens engaged in the daily behavior of hoarding resources, focusing on the self, and needlessly fighting enemies, they would have gone extinct.
This is why the voluntary exchanges that occur on the market are evidence that we survived as a species for a reason. Those exchanges of goods for services continue to be made by individuals, each pursuing his and her happiness, who (hopefully) are doing so with full agency and conscientiousness. That is all the link you need between Existentialism and capitalism, although I applaud William Irwin for contributing an entirely new concept to chew on.