Libertarian History/Philosophy

Why Jean-Paul Sartre Should Have Been a Libertarian!

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Meet William Irwin, a philosophy professor at Pennsylvania's King's College and one of the loneliest people on the planet.

"I'm the only one in academic philosophy who both identifies as an existentialist and as a libertarian," he explains.

Irwin is the author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism, which argues that the philosphical tradition most closely identified with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus has a "natural link" with capitalism and contemporary libertarianism.

That's probably not what you were taught in Philosophy 101. The early writing of Sartre, for instance, were mostly apolitical and emphasized the individual's need to live "authentically" and create meaning in an indifferent and "absurd" universe.

After World War II, Sartre and many of his contemporaries embraced socialist and even dogmatically pro-Soviet views. Academia today continues to link existentialism with faith in command economies.

Irwin argues that Sartre's values of self-creation, choice, and responsibility are best realized by capitalism. "There's as about as much in common between existentialism and socialism as there is between existentialism and cigarettes. They happen to go together sociologically, at a certain time and place. But there's no necessary logical connection."

Consumerism, he says, can pose a challenge for a libertarian existentialist. The reflexive accumulation of goods conflicts with the existentialist imperative not to be defined by your possessions or the values of others. Irwin recommends a few strategies for reaping the material benefits of capitalism and living sincerely, while avoiding a life of keeping up with the Joneses. 

"You don't need to mindlessly drift into the accumulation of stuff and the derivation of self worth and the signaling of one's worth by what one has," he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie. "Instead, just mindfully realize that the free market offers all kinds of great stuff."

About 6 minutes.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Josh Swain and Krainin.

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