The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism by William Irwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
William Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist is a clear and concise exploration of the compatibility of three views not often united under one heading: existentialism, a defense of free markets, and moral anti-realism.
Irwin is explicit that he doesn’t expect existentialists to turn into limited government libertarians, nor libertarians to become existentialists. His goal is more modest: showing that there is nothing incompatible about the conjoining of these views and there might even be ways in which they fit better than other more conventional pairings. In this regard, I think Irwin achieves his goals. One might not walk away from this book a free market existentialist himself, but one will, I think, see how that’s not some crazy oxymoron either.
In terms of the existentialism, Irwin’s focus is primarily on Sartre and his work. First, Sartre is possibly the best-known existentialist and second, he was a Marxist. Irwin makes a convincing case against Sartrean Marxism and then explains how many of Sartre’s themes might be a better fit with free market capitalism. He also suggests how one’s understanding of free markets and one’s self within free markets can be improved by taking an existentialist perspective.
The last two chapters of the book focus on explaining Irwin’s vision of free markets. It is not his goal here to be exhaustive or to provide the philosophical foundations and justifications for free markets (there are footnotes directly to such sources). The vision presented is standard classical liberal/libertarian fare and I have little to quibble with here.
The part of the book I found the most wanting was the focus on moral anti-realism. Irwin describes moral anti-realism as the rejection of the view that morality exists independently of anyone’s beliefs about it. I think that is probably too broad—though that depends on what we mean by morality existing and existing independently. The meta-ethical issues about the existence of morality are complex, and I think, largely muddled. (To be clear: the issues themselves are muddled, not Irwin’s discussion). While the bridges between moral anti-realism and existentialism were easier to grasp, the relation of moral anti-realism to free markets was less persuasive—thought not without some interesting and worthwhile points.
I think the choice of title is telling. Irwin is the eponymous Free Market Existentialist; he is not providing us with an ‘ism’ to take up. There may be others who share his view (I admit to be sympathetic: I used to describe Rand’s Objectivism as Existentialism on Prozac) but, as he says in the conclusion, he’s not trying to start a new orthodoxy. It’s about starting a conversation and I think Irwin’s book does just that.
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