Libertarian History/Philosophy

It's Time To Embrace Free-Market Existentialism!

Capitalism provides the most choices and opportunities for philosophical self-definition.

|

http://despair.com/products/sisyphus

I am all alone, not in a despairing existentialist place, though sometimes I go there. No, I am all alone in the intersection of circles in a Venn diagram. The first circle represents the set of free-market philosophers and the second circle represents the set of existentialist philosophers. Free-market existentialism? The very idea, which is the subject of my new book, makes some people cringe.

A friend of mine was "horrified," as he put it, when I told him about what I had planned in connecting existentialism and capitalism. He warned me that any other self-identifying existentialist would be horrified as well. What he could not tell me was why.

By the "free market," I don't mean the crony capitalism or crapitalism one finds in the United States, but rather a libertarian economic system in which the government plays no role aside from providing rule of law and protecting property rights. 

I define existentialism as 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. Existentialism is a philosophy of action, not of wallowing in despair. It is stoicism without quietism. 

The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. In both systems of thought, the individual is primary and the individual is responsible. Granted, the sense of individualism characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of individualism characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other inasmuch as both strive for genuine autonomy.

Libertarians have long recognized the importance of strong property rights in securing autonomy, and existentialists have long recognized the importance of choosing meaning and subjective values for oneself in developing authenticity. One sense does not necessarily imply the other, but they do fit together well. Existentialists emphasize the importance of subjectively choosing one's values and making one's meaning, and libertarians champion the individual's prerogative to live in any way that does not cause harm to others. 

Existentialism and libertarianism both value freedom and responsibility. As with individualism, the sense of freedom characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of freedom characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other. The entrepreneurs whom libertarians celebrate are risk takers and often rebels who feel a sense of exhilaration in taking chances. Existentialists, though, because of their largely negative view of capitalism, have typically ignored or dismissed such entrepreneurs as not-genuine examples of individuals exercising their freedom. 

Nonetheless, the entrepreneurial spirit of working for yourself and not being beholden to others fits well with the existentialist ethic of self-reliance. There is a message of personal empowerment in existentialism and free markets, and existentialism can help us avoid the problem of consumerism. 

By consumerism, I mean the addictive drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and for signaling one's worth to others. Existentialism calls for us to define ourselves as individuals and to resist being defined by external forces. The self-defining existentialist will find consumer culture crass without necessarily rejecting the free market that makes it possible. 

One of the great concerns of the political left is that capitalism makes us into mindless drones who simply buy and consume. Of course capitalism provides circumstances that make it easier for a person to live that way, but capitalism can't make you do anything. It is possible to have capitalism without consumerism. Existentialism is actually the ideal balancing agent, the perfect accompaniment to capitalism, allowing us to reap the benefits of a free market while encouraging us to resist crass consumerism. 

For the free-market existentialist, capitalism provides a large array of choices and opportunities conducive to self-definition. Dealing with consumer culture may be difficult, but it is just the kind of challenge the existentialist should relish for the opportunity to exercise responsibility and to grow through challenge. 

Fear of capitalism and free markets is just fear that people can't be trusted to think and act for themselves. Capitalism allows us to vote freely in practically all consumer choices. Of course the temptation is to let our tastes and desires be shaped to a great extent by those around us, but there is nothing necessary about that. Indeed, the existentialist, who is keenly aware of and engaged in the task of self-definition will find that capitalism affords her a wide variety of choices that can aid, rather than hinder, her in self-definition. 

We have come to "need" many things that in truth we only want. But at least some of these things, like automobiles, have real practical value, whereas other things, like the latest bedazzler sold on QVC, have virtually no real practical value. Most Americans could live with far less than they have, but that is not to say that they should. Prudentially, what they should do is examine their lives and define themselves. Consumer products are like alcohol. Everyone should have the right to them, but each of us needs to monitor our own consumption and be mindful of whether we are consuming or being consumed. 

I still do not see why other existentialists are horrified by the free market, but I fear that I have drawn a target on my back rather than a Venn diagram in my mind. Perhaps if free-market existentialism is allowed to compete in the marketplace of ideas, I will have my answer and maybe even get some company.

This essay is excerpted from The Free-Market Existentialist with permission of Wiley.

Watch Nick Gillespie interview William Irwin for Reason TV. More details here.

Advertisement

NEXT: Bioethics: Standing Athwart Science, Yelling 'Whoa'*

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Please start a new political party.

  2. A friend of mine was “horrified,” as he put it, when I told him about what I had planned in connecting existentialism and capitalism. He warned me that any other self-identifying existentialist would be horrified as well. What he could not tell me was why.

    Well, I’m technically not a self-identifying existentialist, but I’m certainly close enough for government work and this has always seemed right to me. Good post, potentially interesting book.

  3. Hi William,

    I think there’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s take the first thing that stuck out to me and go from there. If I’m into drawing Venn diagrams couldn’t “protecting property rights” and “crony capitalism” coexist under the same bubble? Let’s set up a hypothetical although certainly not a ridiculous one. If homeless people decide to take over and provide upkeep to a neglected property owned by a rich, negligent property owner you mean the taxpayer has to pay the salaries of the goose-stepping police force sent to evict our noble squatters?

    1. Why would the rich person send the police to evict someone that was taking care of their property? Next.

      1. You think the typical property owner would not call the cops if a tenant stopped paying rent– even if the tenant kept the place ship shape?

        1. Your analogy requires too many assumptions– wrong assumptions.

        2. Uh, most tenants would start an eviction process for tenants who stop paying rent.

          However, most tenants don’t actually take care of their property. That’s one of the advantages to renting: you don’t have property ownership, so you’re only responsible for any damages you cause to the property.

          However, if the roof needs replacing, or the water heater goes out, or the air conditioner, etc, that’s the actual property owner’s responsibility, since it’s their property.

          You’re logically jumping from squatters to renters in a way that makes no sense.

          Stop. Take a deep breath, and try to make an actual point, instead of asking stupid questions. Because, that’s going nowhere, racist.

        3. Way to move the goal posts.

    2. Just like the Venn diagram with “socialist” and “racist” has overlaps, right, racist?

      1. Hi racist,

        I don’t understand why the author walls off “protecting property rights” as the only legitimate exercise of government power. Certainly, my quality of life would be more influenced by, say, a major chemical plant leaching poly-chlorinated biphenyls into my watershed than a poor person spending a night in someone’s summer home. So, why the emphasis? Isn’t the enforcement of laws designed to protect private property merely reinforcing the pleasures and privileges of a plutocratic elite? Isn’t that kind of crapitalism?

        1. So your beef is that no one should write an article about property rights because you don’t care about that as much as other things?

          Maybe because the world doesn’t purely consist of socialist, racist retards, and the non-retards like reading, too.

          1. “because you don’t care about that as much as other things?”

            No, I’d just point out that you are a statist hack and crony capitalist. You have no problem with the taxpayer footing the bill for a police force whose mission it is to intercede on behalf of a propertied elite to evict a poor person. You are also a definitive rent seeker in more than one way.

            1. Why? Because I explained tenant-renter relationships to you and didn’t answer your stupid questions the way you intended, so you’ll just fill in the blanks on my behalf?

              No wonder you call me racist, racist.

              Why don’t you tell me about my support for anti-abortion laws, since I didn’t say anything in support of those, either?

              Do all your arguments devolve into silly strawmen? Really? You take the effort to come here as the ambassador of American socialism, and all you can do is ask stupid questions that reveal your own ignorance of property right relationships in the modern world, and then you go strawmen-name-calling, lproperty rights is plutocracy because I say so” declaring?

              Since you’re going to the trouble, do you have anything compelling to bring up? Or is this it? If so, that’s sad.

              1. You do know that the final step in a landlord/tenant dispute involves having a publicly-financed police force bang on your door and, at the risk of incarceration and/or physical harm, having these taxpayer-financed goons throw you out of the house? It isn’t the red tag that the landlord puts on your doorknob.

                Do you know how many times right-wingers like you have accused me and others of supporting entrenched interests because we like to have the government do things like regulate toxic effluents in wastewater? It’s more than a hundred, I’d say. So, how’s it feel to be on the other end, goose-stepper and vile racist?

                1. It feels like someone in a wheelchair trying to pick a fight with me.

                  1. You are correct. Bless his heart.

                    1. The sad thing is that most libertarians would fail the ideological Turing test for socialism, as this thread demonstrates.

        2. “Certainly, my quality of life would be more influenced by, say, a major chemical plant leaching poly-chlorinated biphenyls into my watershed”

          So, a major chemical plant affecting your property in a negative way?? How is this not a thing covered under property rights?? Your water was contaminated without your consent. Your property rights violated.

          “Isn’t the enforcement of laws designed to protect private property merely reinforcing the pleasures and privileges of a plutocratic elite?”

          Without protection of private property, wouldn’t that plutocratic elite, able to hire private security and private raiders, be able to easily seize more of the property of poor people while simultaneously defending their property and stolen goods without needing state protection of their private property?

          1. Most poor people don’t own property or it’s not worth much. Historically, property rights have been used to defend the interests of the monied and landed– not the opposite. That said, do you really think I’m making an argument that private property rights should not be enforced or am I making an argument that government should do other things besides protect private property? I’m a boring liberal– not a bloodthirsty revolutionary.

            1. historically, governments have been used to defend the interests of the monied and the landed. The reason the monied and the landed do so well isn’t because some night watchman state uses police to stop thieves and evict dead-beat tenants.

              Honestly, I don’t know what you’re suggesting. One minute you’re saying property rights are the tools of plutocracy, and the next minute, you’re suggesting that slapping on some liberal government benefits along with the plutocracy takes care of it.

              Is that it? “You capitalists are so greedy and plutocraty. Make it up to me and give me some cheese?”

    3. Hi National Socialist,

      You ruin everything.

      You don’t make sense, you don’t listen, you don’t shut up, and you agitate others. You are like too-old eggs — everyone knows what you are, and yet you still mange to stink everything up.

      To quote Jedi Master Zoidberg, “Your thinking is bad and you should feel bad.”

      Please go away. I am not saying “go kill yourself” or even “Go injure yourself,” as has been often suggested. But please, do all of us a favor, and stop posting stupid shit. Exercise your Radical Freedom, like Sartre suggests, and shut up for once.

      1. Actually, American Socialist is making some points worthy of debate. However, instead of engaging him in civil debate, y’all just call him names because he has disturbed the calm waters of this echo chamber.

        1. He is? Can you please point them out? Because to me, he thinks government stopping people from polluting other people’s property as somehow different from property rights.

          Then he says “Historically, property rights have been used to defend the interests of the monied and landed– not the opposite.”

          Sure, this is true in a state that does not care about the rights of the individual, a type of state this douche openly wants. He’s firing guns into a crowd and making the claim that guns kill people.

          The guy is a fucking moron, he made zero coherent points especially when speaking to a libertarian audience who don’t even agree with the arguments of his built up strawmen that he beats down.

  4. It seems that many self described existentialists are also socialists ala Jean Paul Sartre. I don’t really consider myself an existentialist, but if I did, I’d identify more with S?ren Kierkegaard. Sartre is to depressing.

    1. Camusian absurdists were about 95% socialist and about 5% capitalists, many of whom hopped back and forth. But both generally hovered around that area of individualism at “the top of the circle/clock”. I made a comment a few days back for another article about how I see the continuum as not a straight line but a circle where 12 o’clock is pure individualism and 6 o’clock is pure statism. On certain matters, individualist left and individualist right aren’t that far from each other – both are likely secular, materialist, and humanist. The great watershed is the role property rights play, and – unfortunately – most secular, materialist, humanists come down on the side of very limited or no property rights. A six volume set of tomes could be written as to why they are wrong, but that’s another time and place.

      1. cont

        Simply, I am glad to see a similar kindred spirit in the small intersection of the diagram of secular, humanist, materialist, property rights, anti-statist. The real trick is to prove that a society falls much faster into despotism and tyranny with no property rights versus one that has. But Jefferson was also right in that no matter what the foundation a “cleansing” will be necessary every so often, and that – from and individualist standpoint, and a libertarian standpoint – both the left and the right are right and they are both wrong. Governments will always trend toward tyranny eventually regardless of which side of “the clock” you start out on. It takes principles and vigilance, and a willingness to “go to the barricades” when the government has gotten out of whack. Libertarians should be neither left nor right. And, while accepting private property rights, even of the means of production, shouldn’t become so blinded, or in so much fear of “the left” as to live with the welfare/warfare copora-fascism we’ve had since at least 1913.

  5. “We have come to “need” many things that in truth we only want. But at least some of these things, like automobiles, have real practical value, whereas other things, like the latest bedazzler sold on QVC”

    I guess this sentence and a few others like it read to me like Randism. You think that the only things holding people back from philosophical self-expression are barriers placed upon them by government dictat?!?Most of the existentialist writers I’ve read were concerned with the individual’s battles against poverty, racism, and militarism and, sometimes, the inability to overcome them- not the effect of the Clean Air Act on the Koch Brothers. Which existentialists are you reading? Road to Serfdom, doesn’t count.

    1. Do some mushrooms and come back to talk.

  6. As I said in response to your previous article, I’ve run into libertarian existentialists before. There may not be many of you, but you’re not quite alone. And yes, it’s the individualism of existentialism that supports the libertarian view.

  7. There are so many blog ads on this article about how brave individualist libertarians can avoid crass consumerism that I’m having trouble loading it and using it as inspiration in avoiding a purchase of a bedazzler.

  8. Y’all fuckers need to kill the spooks in your heads

    – Max Stirner

    https://goo.gl/HOylmu

    1. racist

  9. Makes sense to me. Humans are individuals and should live free.

  10. Libertarians need only embrace the free market as far as I am concerned đŸ™‚

  11. “I still do not see why other existentialists are horrified by the free market”

    Probably the most important idea behind existentialism is “existence precedes essence.” It means existentialists put stock in the individual, rather than essences such as the Free Market or God etc.

  12. Im making over $9k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,

    ———- http://www.onlinejobs100.com

  13. I’ve been on a crusade against the term “crony capitalism”. Someone on the Reason comments once relayed an opinion they got from a caller on the Rush Limbaugh show that essentially stated that “crony capitalism” is actually closer to socialism. I’ve been saying “cronyism” or “crony socialism” instead, and here’s why:

    Capitalism is the philosophy of letting market forces determine the allocation of resources. Cronyism, by contrast, is the result of politicians taking resources from where the market has naturally placed them and putting them where the market would not place them. Cronyism is politicians saying, “the market has placed the money here, but I think I can do better – I’ll take the money from that place and stick it over here, because I think that I’m smarter than the markets and that I can come up with better allocation of resources.” I fail to see how there is anything capitalist about this mindset, unless we’re just going with the faulty assumption that “capitalist” means “profit at any cost whatsoever”.

    The way I see it, socialism is just the result of cronyism run rampant. It’s a cronyist arrangement of the entire economy. “Crony capitalism” really makes no sense. It’s an oxymoron. Of course, there is a reason for using words in an imposition like that (like how a “false prince” is not really a prince at all) but most people don’t get that, and they will just build up more negative associations with capitalism through use of the phrase “crony capitalism”.

    1. ” taking resources from where the market has naturally placed them and putting them where the market would not place them”

      You may be a libertarian but at this rate you’ll never be much of an existentialist. Existentialists believe in the centrality of the individual. They see no reason to defer to abstractions such as God or The Market.

    2. Akira,
      More of this please. You are correct in recognizing the oxymoronic mis-use of this term.
      I am with you on this great crusade.

      1. My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do..

        Clik This Link inYour Browser….

        ? ? ? ? http://www.WorkPost30.Com

    3. Someone on another forum used the term “crapitalism”, which I thought was a good abbreviation of crony capitalism, but I guess it still associates it with capitalism. Crony socialism might indeed be a good term to use, as people will probably ask you what you mean, giving you a chance to explain.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.