The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism
William Irwin joins us to talk about existentialism and libertarianism. What did thinkers like Sartre and Neitzsche have to say about capitalism and human freedom?
What is free market existentialism? Why have adherents of existentialism so often chosen Marxism as their political philosophy?
William Irwin joins us this week to discuss his book, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (2015).
What purpose or meaning can we give life, if we start from a place where we take as a given that there is no inherent or divine purpose to life? Why should libertarians also be existentialists?
Show Notes and Further Reading
William Irwin’s book, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (2015) challenges assumptions about morality, natural rights and the role of government using insights from thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Nozick, and F. A. Hayek.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is William Irwin. He’s the Herve A. LeBlanc Distinguished Service Professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and author of the new book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
William Irwin: Thanks for having me, Aaron and Trevor.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I had – prior to reading this book, not had much exposure at all to existentialism. I think I had read a handful of these people a little bit in passing but had never had an extended session of Sartre or anyone else. So let’s maybe start Bill with just telling us what is existentialism. I mean is it just kind of an excuse for French guys to smoke cigarettes and look cool?
William Irwin: That’s the way a lot of people think about it I’m afraid and it gets stereotyped as that kind of fad in philosophy. But I think it actually is something that you find – although encapsulated in French thinkers of the 20th century throughout the history of philosophy. But basically if I could give you a textbooky-sounding definition, it’s a philosophy that reacts to an absurd and meaningless world by urging acts of freedom and self-creation to overcome feelings of absurdity and oppression, despair and alienation.
So I think you find currents of that sort of impulse all the way back in the Old Testaments books of Job and Ecclesiastes. You find it in thinkers like Pascal. But most notably, it comes to be a movement both in philosophy and literature in the 20th century.
Trevor Burrus: Now existentialism, some people of the – on the analytics side of the philosophy department would say it’s not even really philosophy. It’s more like poetry meets self-help kind of thing. How would you address that criticism?
William Irwin: Right. It has that sort of negative cast to it in a lot of people’s minds because a lot of the writing is a bit obscure. It also gets its expression in a literary and artistic form and it doesn’t trade in arguments the way which analytic philosophy tends to. So it gets that stereotype.
On the other hand, it really does grapple with the big questions that people are more likely to associate with philosophy, questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, freewill. So we can acknowledge that it has some shortcomings in terms of argumentative clarity and nonetheless see that philosophy is a big tent that has room underneath it for existentialism.
Aaron Ross Powell: When you use terms like “the absurd” or “meaninglessness” to describe life, that sounds pretty dark, depressing, pessimistic. Is that an accurate read or are those terms being used slightly differently in existentialism than we would in ordinary language?
William Irwin: Well, I think it comes out of ordinary language. But then they sort of take on specialized senses. So basically when we’re talking about the absurd, we mean a lack of fit between our expectations and the way that the world actually is, right? So anybody who has ever waited on line at the DMV or had their heart broken by that cute someone who won’t go out with them, those are valid absurdity and meaninglessness, well, most of the French existentialists were atheists.
So, in terms of meaninglessness, are suggesting that there’s not a pre-given purpose to life. So part of the challenge becomes what purpose or meaning can we give it subjectively even if we start from a place where we don’t think there’s a pre-given divine purpose.
Aaron Ross Powell: So this is a book about free markets or libertarianism and existentialism. So much of it is about freedom and how we ought to understand that and how the state should or shouldn’t get involved in it. So when libertarians broadly – if a libertarian talks about freedom, he has in mind something like the absence of coercion within lots of necessary further definitions of those terms. But that’s the general idea. But that’s rather different from the existentialist view of freedom.
William Irwin: That’s right. The existentialist view of freedom is really metaphysical or ontological and it’s the absence of ultimate constraints, so that I can always choose to do otherwise. It has a bit of stoicism about it in the sense that my mind always remains free no matter what the circumstances may be. Sartre and his characteristic hyperbole at one point says that the slave in chains is as free as the master, like the idea being that the mind remains free. The choice is always there to revolt even under the worst of circumstances.
Trevor Burrus: OK. So we start with this – this very different concept of freedom. So in this way, existentialism is not a political philosophy. I mean at least on its face, but it has often had – its adherents have often chosen Marxism for some reason as their political philosophy and sometimes even justified it on pseudo-existentialism grounds. How do they do that and why do they do that?
William Irwin: Yeah, that’s one of the strange things about it. It’s a philosophy of individualism and of personal responsibility and so with that initial description, you would be inclined to think, well, if there is any political connection nor implication, it would be sort of a libertarian one. But as we find historically, Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, the big ringleaders among the French existentialists were as you mentioned Marxists and socialists. Curiously though, that comes sort of later in their career. It’s really after Sartre publishes his magnum opus Being and Nothingness and it’s really after World War Two when really to simplify things, to a cultural explanation the bad guys were obviously on the political right, at least as some conceive it with the Nazis and the fascists.
So there was an inclination to look to the political left that that must be where the good guys are and those were the Marxists and the socialists and French intellectual life was dominated by Marxist socialism. Curiously, the leading socialists and Marxists of the time were all condemning Sartre’s work, his existentialism as bourgeois and individualistic and self-involved. But then he turned to advocate for Marxism and socialism and to my mind never really successfully wed the two although lots of Sartrean scholars would beg to differ with me on that.
Trevor Burrus: Now would you – what about Heidegger though? I mean he was a Nazi. I mean, correct?
William Irwin: Yes, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: That seems problematic.
William Irwin: Sure, that’s very problematic for anyone associated with him. Heidegger is in many ways the main influence on Sartre’s philosophy along with Husserl and of course there are lots of ongoing debate about the connections between Heidegger’s phenomenology and his politics. I’ve never been convinced that there is anything very political about his philosophy. Others beg to differ.
Aaron Ross Powell: This point you make about the – Sartre’s connection to Marxism potentially coming from this – like the bad guys are on the right. So therefore I’m going to be on the left, because I don’t want to be like the bad guys. It was really interesting because first, it seems like that explains a lot of people’s behavior, especially in politics. It’s just like the people I don’t like believe this. So therefore, that thing is not just wrong but this alternative must be right. But also it seemed odd in light of the demands for self-authorship and personal choice baked into existentialism to say like I – my job is to be a self-author. My job is to critically evaluate ideas and beliefs and not just go along with convention. But at the same time, when it comes to really big issues, like how we should structure society or the state of the economy, I’m just going to go along with what this tribe happens to think because they’re not the other tribe.
William Irwin: Yeah, I mean it’s very disappointing in that way. But in some ways, not surprising. We can all think of examples of other people who fit this way of handling things where they look at the people who are identifiably the bad guys and just decide to go in the other direction without having thought a lot about it and there was a lot of social pressure within the French intellectual community for him to do it and it moved Sartre that is from having this complete emphasis on individualism to emphasizing the social dimension of human experience and the way in which responsibility and freedom are bound up with social conditions, which is something that he wouldn’t need to deny and that even in his earlier philosophy, he accepted that there’s always a situation. There’s always a context in which we make our choices.
But rather than internalize responsibility as a libertarian would call for, the later Sartre externalizes responsibility by suggesting that we really need to have the kind of economic and political structures in place that look out for people and well, put in place the sort of cradle to grave socialism that was coming into place or had been in place already in the Soviet Union, which he had a flirtation with and then even now is China which embarrassingly he had a pretty long flirtation with.
Trevor Burrus: So have any of the big existentialists or maybe even smaller existentialist philosophers – have you ever encountered any of them who flirted with something that might be resembling libertarianism or at least not complete Marxism socialism? Is there any sort of friendliness to – or at least maybe hatred of the state or like opposition to the state or something that could resemble a kind of more free, less statist kind of philosophy?
William Irwin: I mean that’s a good question. I think you can find suspicion of powers, suspicion of the state. But the title of my book is The Free Market Existentialist because as far as I’ve been able to discover, I’m the only person who considers themselves an existentialist. Certainly I’m not the – on the level of a Sartre or something like that. I don’t mean that. But classifies myself as existentialist and also classifies myself as a free market advocate.
The closest we might come to what you’re asking for though is the person who first introduced Sartre to phenomenology, which then led to his development of existentialism, Raymond Aron, who wrote a very important book refuting Sartre’s turn toward Marxism which he titled The Opium of the Intellectuals. Of course playing on the Marxist famous jive about the religion being the opiate of the people. Aron was suggesting that Marxism had become and I would say continues to be the opium of the intellectuals.
Aaron Ross Powell: Let’s then move from – I mean I think you provide a pretty compelling case in the book for why Marxism socialism is not a good fit for existentialism and much of the book is then an argument for why free markets are. But before we get to that argument, I wanted to talk a bit about your critiques of some of the stuff that goes on in markets. So you take the anti-consumerism angle of existentialism. You take as fairly weighty and something that I think is overlooked by free market people. So can you tell us what you mean by consumerism and then how that is either incompatible with or detrimental to the kind of life that existentialism thinks we ought to lead?
William Irwin: Good. So the goal for existentialism is to live a life that in the parlance of existentialism is authentic, genuine basically, right? True, honest. And consumerism is really the boogeyman, right? This is what those on the political left oftentimes see as inevitably wed to capitalism and what makes capitalism so bad. I’m arguing in the book though that capitalism and consumerism don’t have to go together. That’s actually the subtitle of the book, Capitalism without Consumerism. So by consumerism, I mean this addictive drive or at least potentially addictive drive and desire to have the newest, the latest, the best goods and services, motivated by a desire to signal one’s worth to others and/or to feel one’s own self-worth, right? The idea being that this is kind of a bad thing, right?
There’s nothing wrong with consumer products. There’s nothing wrong necessarily with wanting certain nice things. But what is bad is if you derive your own self-worth from having these things or feel the need to signal your worth to other people, right? This would not be a genuine or authentic way of living, right?
So it’s not that even desires are bad things, right? I liken this to alcohol in a way that lots of people can relate to. Nothing wrong with the desire to have a glass of beer. But does the glass of beer end up having you or do you have the glass of beer, right? Do you have a problem with it? Does it get away from you?
This can happen. As we know, not to everyone, but we look around us and we see that lots of people really aren’t living their lives for their own chosen purposes, but are being driven along by whatever the latest gadgets or the latest status markers may be.
Trevor Burrus: Now consumerism though, it seems like a dangerous line to try and draw because it seems like – the way I hear the word used generally speaking is it’s one of these terms where no one ever calls themselves it. It’s only an epithet used by other people and it’s always critical. It’s sort of like brainwashed. Like, no one ever says, “I’m brainwashed.” People always call other people brainwashed by the corporations or the public schools or whatever have you.
So I mean the line between buying things – I buy things. I like buying things. There are things that I like buying. It’s kind of ontological. I don’t know if I’m a consumerist. I’m sure I could find some 18-year-old punk rock kid who would accuse me of being a consumerist.
I would be very reticent to accuse anyone of being a consumerist. We can think of the trophy house wife on Rodeo Drive buying a Coach bag. But if she gets that much pleasure out of it, then I have a hard time criticizing her. So where’s our stance that we can criticize some things that some people buy under some circumstances?
William Irwin: Oh, I mean I think that’s an excellent point. You’re right. It’s a pejorative term that very few people are likely to put upon themselves. I liken it to addiction. I think it shows that in common, right? Nobody wants to be an addict and very few people who are actively overusing drugs or alcohol or shopping for that matter are inclined to label themselves addicts. Sometimes it’s obviously from the outside that somebody has an addiction problem and sometimes it’s not.
But often the best judge is internal. And really the judgment from the free market existentialist’s perspective needs to be made from the inside. It’s not really about judging another person as authentic or inauthentic but rather adopting this standard for one’s self that I want to live an authentic life, right? One that’s genuine, true and self-determined and taking a look at the way in which I’m living and saying, “Am I living that way or not?” Are my choices in lifestyle, profession, whatever it may be, are they dictated by wants and desires that I would really rather not have, right?
I mean there are wants and desires we have that we fully endorse and then there may be other wants and desires that we say, “I wish I didn’t have that want and desire.” That would be inauthentic, to be – being pushed along by those kinds of wants and desires.
Aaron Ross Powell: Question about this then is the – so if not being consumerists would entail following our own wants and desires or not being slavish to these external wants, it’s going to mean behavioral changes likely to some extent including say buying less stuff, not necessarily upgrading your iPhone every year when a new one comes out in the fall. But instead thinking about whether you really want it and whether you need it and whether you could spend that time and money on other things.
So in that regard, like a self-authorship would mean buying less stuff. But at the same time, one of the things that capitalism does is by providing us with more stuff and more options for stuff, it broadens the scope of possible lives that we could self-author. Just like if you’re writing a novel, having access to more words means that you can do more with it and take it in more directions than if you have access to fewer words. So is there a tension here where basically the variety that capitalism enables us to pursue is to some extent also dependent on people buying more stuff than they need?
William Irwin: Sure. I think that’s a nice way of putting it. There’s a tension though I wouldn’t say there’s a contradiction, right? For most people, resisting consumerism may mean buying less than they otherwise do or it may not for very many people who are at a very comfortable level of following their freely chosen wants and desires.
But for example, if one doesn’t want to work in a particular field of employment and is only attracted to it because the pay is good, well that may mean cutting back on certain indulgences, right? Whether it be updating your iPhone every year or whatever the case may be.
So the market itself is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing in the sense that it makes all these various choices available. But with that, comes the potential temptation to overindulge. This again I think is a place where existentialism and the free market dovetailed because one of the things that the existentialists tend to emphasize is facing and overcoming challenges and really that’s the kind of challenge that we meet in the face of consumer abundance, right?
So in no way am I calling for a – strip down to just three brands of toothpaste, right? Let’s have 50 if that’s what the market bears. But really we need to be able to make our own choices within that context and in a broader context than just toothpaste, come to realize for ourselves what are our needs and what are our wants and what are our wants really worth to us in terms of the time and money that they cost us.
Aaron Ross Powell: How demanding is the standard? Reading it, I was thinking about the others that knock against Aristotle’s conception of the good human life is that it’s really only a life that a small portion of people are capable of living because most people don’t have the option to sit around in a contemplative state all the time. Does this fall prey to the same sort of criticism in that this sort of self-definition and doing what you want as opposed to what’s forced upon you exercising this existentialist freedom, that a lot of people say don’t have a choice about pursuing their bliss in the marketplace, about working their dream job, because it’s just not available to them?
They’re working the best job they could get to that may be dreary or low pay or long hours or high stress but they don’t have meaningful choices because they don’t have a lot of human capital say or the – you know, critically evaluating each thing as it comes along and choosing authentically demands a high level of cognitive capacity, a certain personality type say, a degree of freedom or just time and wealth that some people may not have.
So is this – is it a realistic standard for everyday people to meet or is it more of something that only an elite few could reasonably achieve?
William Irwin: Well, that’s a really good question with a number of interesting facets that are bound up with it. So Sartre speaks about us in colorful language as being condemned to be free, right? In the metaphysical, the ontological sense, right? The one thing you can’t avoid is your own freedom. As the sort of cliché has it, the only choice you cannot make is to not make a choice.
So it does face us with a kind of a heavy burden as he frames it and then the standard of being authentic, right? It’s a very difficult one. Perhaps kind of an aspirational goal that few if any could really attain. Certainly Sartre doesn’t offer himself as an example of someone who does attain it. Almost all of the consideration that he gives to the issue is for the negative, right? What does it look like? What does it mean to be inauthentic? To be, in his language, in bad faith. Very little said about being in good faith, right? Which is really a matter of fully taking responsibility for one’s freedom. And is everybody cut out for this? Will everybody find that attractive? Absolutely not.
But here’s a place where I think this frame differs from Aristotle where Aristotle was clearly elitist in suggesting that what he had in mind really was for the very few whereas what I’m suggesting here is that while this may not suit everyone or not even suit most people, there’s no real condemnation of those who reject it, right? It’s an internally consistent possibility but not an externally-demanded standard, right?
So if you were to choose to pursue this ideal of authenticity, well then, that’s your freely chosen possibility and you yourself – than if taking the standards upon yourself. But in a way, as you nicely point out, it’s kind of one of those First World problems or luxury problems that we might have to decide whether or not to pursue this line of work with that line of work, to decide whether we want to drive this kind of car or that kind of car. Those aren’t the type of choices that face most people around the world.
So in a way, it is the kind of thing that becomes a possibility for consideration only under relatively prosperous circumstances. But of course the truth is that with the great enrichment over the past 100, 150, 200 years, more and more people find themselves in that sort of luxury position and going forward for the next century and beyond, an even greater slice of the human pie will have the chance to face those sort of luxury problems and First World issues.
Trevor Burrus: Some people might be listening to this and thinking that the first free market existentialist was Ayn Rand. There’s – at least on its face talking about the authentic life, striving for – living true to yourself and developing yourself as an authentic human being. It sounds kind of Randian or more so even Nathaniel Brandon when he went away from the pure sort of – the pure parts of it and just kind of do the psychology, his psychology stuff, which was very self-help-oriented.
So is it accurate to say that Ayn Rand is an existentialist or maybe kind of an existentialist?
William Irwin: Well, as you probably know, she despised the existentialists.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, she did. It’s kind of interesting, yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: She despised libertarians.
William Irwin: Yeah. So I think you’re right on in making the connection although she wouldn’t express – accept the label. I mean of course she’s profoundly influenced by Nietzsche. But then disavows Nietzsche and there are all kinds of problems as you point out with the way in which she handles her connections with other schools of thought.
But yeah, in the book, I make reference to Ayn Rand on several occasions and I think one of them in particular ties into the previous question. When you think about alienation and being stuck in a certain kind of job or situation, one model that might come to mind is Howard Roark in The Fountainhead when he was working in the quarry and here’s a guy who’s able to take even – you know, this pretty awful work situation and finds something and makes something out of it. So I like the connection with Rand despite the baggage that they come along with it.
Trevor Burrus: So Rand, the difference here it seems though in one sense, which is the next part I want to kind of get to is that Rand has a whole metaphysics behind what she’s – an epistemology behind what she’s advocating. But for existentialists, generally speaking, they avoid metaphysics. They use it – it seems that they use a subjective as the criteria for whether or not something is good or just when they’re talking about what should you do next.
Are existentialists as a general rule subjectivists on personal values and the right way of constructing the world is whatever one makes you authentic and no other considerations need apply?
William Irwin: I think that’s right. Starting with Nietzsche, there’s a kind of a rejection of metaphysics. They move into speaking more about ontology which is only slightly different. But when it comes to values, values are subjectively chosen and that’s a major point of difference between the existentialists and Rand and that’s where Rand is very much an Aristotelian in thinking that there’s objectivity to human value.
Aaron Ross Powell: So as you go to then build this case for free markets, from an existentialist standpoint, you begin by disputing moral realism. So could you run us through that argument for moral anti-realism?
William Irwin: Yeah. So this again is a point of departure from Rand, right? She’s very much a moral realist by which we mean that there is objective reality to moral values. This is easy to root for someone who is a theist, a believer in the traditional, loving, all-power, all-good God, right? Because these values are rooted in divine will, in divine command. It’s also the kind of metaphysics that a Platonist can be at home in even if the Platonist isn’t a theist.
One of the odd things to my mind though is that most 20th century philosophers who have been atheists have also been more realists without to my mind giving a convincing case for where that’s actually rooted. The case against that from my perspective which is detail in the book is that there’s very good evolutionary explanation for why we have moral feelings and sentiments in terms of our evolved tendency to cooperate and reciprocate in order to live in groups, small groups in particular.
So if you have this evolutionary explanation for why we have the feelings and sentiments that we typically label as moral, you don’t need anything extra metaphysically, right? A platonic form, a divine will or anything else. So the principle of parsimony or Occam’s razor would then shave off that extra metaphysical entity and so you would have moral anti-realism, right?
We have, yes, these feelings and sentiments and largely they seem to serve us well. But they’re not really rooted in anything higher. So that opens the door then to subjectivism, right? Where I may be sort of pre-packaged with the tendency towards certain moral feelings and sentiments, but I can choose to try to develop otherwise, override them, et cetera, although that may be no easy task given how firmly hardwired some of these tendencies and feelings might be.
Aaron Ross Powell: Let me see if I can understand that by way of analogy or simply distinguish it because – so I’m sitting at a table right now and have sent data of – a microphone in front of me. It’s attached to the table. I can see Trevor across the table from me and I’m receiving – so I have these impressions of this and this distinct feeling that these things are there and that they’re real. But I’m receiving them through eyes and nerves and a brain that are the product of evolution. We can tell a story of how they arrived there.
But then we wouldn’t say, well, because they’re evolutionarily-derived and so because I could have evolved differently, such that I would have seen them different. It’s then not the case that the table or the microphone or Trevor are not real, that they still are real. It’s just that my – I have evolved senses for picking up on reality. Couldn’t we say the same thing about our moral sense or our moral intuition or at least is there a strong reason why the existence of an evolutionary origin for those things would be a disproof of their reality?
William Irwin: That’s a really good point. Of course the sense – experience that you have of Trevor and the microphone is very likely pointing to something there that’s real. You may be experiencing those – not the reality as it actually is, right? I mean it could be that the colors you see are really just the byproducts of the sense data and your hardware, et cetera. But nonetheless, your point remains the case that it seems like the best explanation for your experience of Trevor and the microphone is that it’s really there and that evolutionarily speaking, it probably wouldn’t have made any sense to develop the tendency to pick up on things that are not there.
I think the analogy that will help to convey my point a little bit better would be – kind of an aesthetic one, right? And consider a sensory experience like smell, right? We can all think of smells that we find disgusting, right? Whether it be the smell of feces or vomit or whatever the case may be, right?
And the temptation is there to think that well, feces smells disgusting because it objectively is disgusting. But of course my dog will go right over to that same pile of feces and stick his nose in it.
Trevor Burrus: Or dung beetles, yes.
William Irwin: Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: Just because dogs are disgusting.
Trevor Burrus: Dogs are not a good thing for Aaron ever. Yes.
William Irwin: So the point being is that there really isn’t an objective property of disgusting-ness there but it served as well from an evolutionary standpoint to not behave like the dog and stick our nose right in it, right? So the suggestion is that when it comes to value judgments and the moral or ethical realm, sure, it could be that there really is something there that we’re picking up on.
But the simpler explanation would be that it has served us well to react to certain actions, particularly those that are abusive or don’t respect norms of reciprocity by expressing disapproval and that can just codified then in terms of moral judgments, which are much more effective. When we say, “Oh, no. That’s not just a matter of our subjective response, but actually is objectively the truth,” whether it’s rooted in divine command or some kind of higher reality, that makes for a more effective suggestion that you really need to conform to those norms.
Trevor Burrus: So now that seems really odd. We got to this point now and this has been a good discussion of moral realism but in – moral anti-realism. But you’ve written a book that is kind of an argument for libertarianism but now you must wonder, well, how can you argue for libertarianism if all these things are subjective and there is no actual – every moral argument for libertarianism is rooted in some sort of theory of truth. I mean the ones we kind of generally …
Aaron Ross Powell: Property rights.
Trevor Burrus: Discuss property rights. There are things that are just good by some conception of the word good or just or fair.
Aaron Ross Powell: Or owed to you.
Trevor Burrus: Or owed to you. If we throw that stuff out the window, it seems that the free market existentialist’s argument is something like – it’s oddly selfish but not in a way of Ayn Rand selfish where she has a metaphysical and an epistemological reason for you to be selfish. It’s like you really should – really all you really want out of – need out of life is authenticity and the best form of authenticity for you to get it is through the free market and so that’s why you should believe in free markets. But there is no further truth beyond that fact that that’s what helps you live the rich – existentially rich life.
William Irwin: Well, right, yeah. What I’m arguing for is a matter of preference rather than any kind of moral objective value. Natural rights. Any of that dismisses as being a bit too spooky and the suggestion again with the program, it’s not that everybody would want to adopt this free market existentialist approach to things. But that – it may be a preference and I think that the more one learns about it, the more one is inclined to prefer it. In Kant’s terminology, we’re talking about a hypothetical imperative rather than a categorical imperative.
So it’s kind of like if you don’t want to get cavities, that you should brush your teeth and go to the dentist every six months. If you see the logic of that, then you would follow along with it. I don’t think that the logic for adopting an existentialist approach to life or a free market approach to life or the combination of the two is nearly as universally compelling as the logic of brush your teeth and go to the dentist every six months. But I think it holds an appeal to me and part of the idea of the book is me trying to find out if it holds an appeal to anyone else or if I really am kind of all alone in this classification of free market existentialists.
Aaron Ross Powell: So in reading a book, I was struck by how clear the connection is between the flow from existentialism to libertarianism and if it seemed rather obvious that if you accept existentialism as you articulate it in the book that free markets are a better fit for your views than Marxism or socialism. You gave a good story of why the opposite seems to be the case and why so many existentialists were drawn to Marxism.
Trevor Burrus: At least back in the day.
Aaron Ross Powell: At least back in the day. But let me flip that around then. So our – if our audience is chiefly libertarians and free market people, we don’t – and you say this. You say you are kind of the lonely example of this. Why don’t we see more existentialist libertarians?
William Irwin: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think part of the answer lies in the question that you asked before about Ayn Rand. So those who are inclined in an existentialist direction I think find a lot of what they’re looking for in Ayn Rand. So you do find this combination of views and you will find of course plenty of libertarians who have a comfortable relationship with Ayn Rand despite what she may have said about libertarianism.
What you won’t find though is very many people who identify as existentialists, right? So somebody is a philosophy professor in college for example, saying that, “Oh yeah, this makes sense, your libertarian views.”
So there are subtle messages sent to people that these two things just don’t go together. So – and one of the other things – this comes up with some of our conversation before we even got started is that American – and the same is true for British colleges and universities – are dominated by analytic philosophy, which tends to focus on much narrower and language-oriented questions and tends to table the big, grand questions about the meaning of life and the nature of freewill and living a genuine, authentic life.
More and more in American and really English-speaking colleges and universities throughout the world, existentialism doesn’t really get any play. So I would think you would find more of those who were libertarian and market-oriented embracing existentialism if they had more exposure to existentialism. Again, that’s part of the hope for the book that I can say enough to intrigue some people to take a look a little bit further at this.
Trevor Burrus: Well, because of the subjectivism part of it, it is kind of – it seems like you would have to be an existentialist first who accepted the basic premises of the school of thought and the subjectivism part of it in order to be amenable to being convinced about libertarianism.
The hardest thing I think for convincing libertarians is convincing them that the best argument – or one of the best arguments for libertarianism would be the – not the objective rights or utilitarianism or whatever, but actually just the – it is the best way for you be an authentic person and that’s it. You should realize that.
So it might be the thing about getting them to give up objectivity, which libertarians tend to love.
William Irwin: Well, that’s a very good point and that’s part of what’s bound up with Rand as well, the promise that we can give you an objective basis for this by which then you can convince just about anybody else if they’re willing to listen to your reasons. I’m just not saying that. I don’t know that you will convince everyone else nor do I necessarily know that this really is the best life for everyone.
The book ends by my sort of imagining an ideal situation in which you had a truly free market state where people could freely choose to be but it existed in an archipelago of other states where people could choose other systems of government and other economic systems. I don’t have really the sense that there’s a knockdown objective argument to convince everyone that this option is the option for everyone. All I can say is here are the reasons that it’s a good option for me and you might find likewise.
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