The Free Market Existentialist: Review and Musings

Post by Maxime Rousseau

When I first joined the libertarian camp through my membership and subsequent candidacy in Trois-Rivières for the Libertarian Party of Canada, I had low expectations as to quality of the philosophical discourse I would be hearing. In terms of political philosophy, I had read mostly classical and post-war liberals (those usual suspects in English, and French anti-totalitarians: Camus, Aron et al), which had a great influence on me. Comforted in what I thought to be a solid position on the ethical justification of the free-market in the wider context of the attainment of a free society, I came to be skeptical of other extremes, on both sides of the spectrum. I despised the left, which held no coherent idea of what freedom really meant and believed in concepts like the social contract and social determinism, which I abhorred. On the other side of the spectrum, the radical right's economics-based justification of the free-market model, with it's utilitarian leitmotiv implying that it aught to be adopted because it would work better, seemed just as empty as the left's constant referencing of the socialistic Scandinavian model as an empirical success to be emulated. To be sure, a lot of the discussion of libertarianism I have encountered through my contact with like-minded folks both inside and outside of the party remains either very technical or heavily reliant on moral facts deemed objective, but I was pleased to have discussions that went far beyond that at times. Metaphysics, ontology, epistemology often came to be mentioned.


If there was any doubt in my mind left about the depth and breadth of libertarian thinkers, my recent reading of William Irwin's The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism has succeeded in washing it away. In a political environment where many (most?) adepts believe in some kind of objective reality, either through Randian objectivism, or through the moral a priori of natural rights or the non-aggression principle, Irwin confronts the pack by offering a coherent system of belief that ties in the metaphysics of post-modernity with the political ideals of libertarianism. He reconsiders existentialism in a way which rids it's wrongfully applied stigma of having been shared by the apologist of totalitarianism that was Sartre, drawing on others who have helped shaped the idea before it's rise to fame, notably Nietzsche. After having rid existentialism of it's Sartrian burden, he makes a perfectly sound case for the mutual complementarity of existentialism and capitalism, two systems that promote self-ownership and self-determination on the ontological and material fronts, respectively. The book then suggests alternative ways of defining ethics in the metaphysical void which characterises existentialism. I was taken by surprise about the inclusion of a full chapter on evolutionary ethics, a field that I have never even heard of that ties in evolutionary biology with the ethics of human behavior. The book ends with two chapters on property rights and the minimal state, which offers libertarian alternatives to current political organization that are coherent with the metaphysically existentialistic and anti-moral position presented in the previous chapters.

If not for anything else, this book is important because it confronts libertarians with ideas that are widely accepted within our scene, to the point of being taken at face value by most. Perspective is easy to lose in today's world, an age where content is custom-tailored to us on various social media platforms, inevitably creating what amounts to high-tech echo chambers. Patting each other on the back for accepting the NAP is unlikely to produce productive debate and further advance the philosophical positions within our movement; in that, Irwin's book is a helpful reminder that knowing the strengths AND weaknesses of the philosophical underpinnings of libertarianism is the best way of comfortable in presenting and debating it.

Of course, the book has several other merits. Amongst which, it looks to be easy enough to read for the casual reader, with a very straightforward presentation of the arguments in favour of the author's position. Being intimately familiar with the French obsession with footnoted references and comments which are immensely distracting visually, I can appreciate the authors (editors?) choice of placing all references and notes at the end of each chapter, thus making the book easier to read for everybody while still providing an important list of related materials for those who would like to supplement their reading lists.

One of its other strong merits is that it rings many bells in the post-modern mind: metaphysical nihilism which results on near-absolute moral relativism and evolutionary biology are ideas which individuals from all post-war generations, with exception of a few rabid religious fanatics, accept as true to some extent. At the very least, all are familiar with them. Irwin builds on these ideas which are current and resonate with the times, making for a potent book that, for all its use in shaking up existing libertarians, also has what it needs to win over new converts. Its unpretentious style and presentation only helps to make the book more accessible to others who might be in another corner of the political spectrum.

If I were to have one criticism of the book, it would be on Irwin's dismissal of Richard Joyce's definition of moral fictionalism as incompatible with existentialistic ethos. While I'd agree that holding beliefs of moral realism which we know to be false is inauthentic, it seems to me that there is another way of imagining fictionalism which would relate to the existentialist ideal of self-definition. Couldn't moral frameworks, in addition to being inherited through evolution, be shaped by the individual through empirical experience? What I have in mind is something akin to Popperian epistemology applied to morals. Confronted with the impossibility of empirically testing the outcome of every moral position, some things have to be taken as a priori knowledge: this would be evolutionary core morality. The incapability of proving moral objectivity provides the grounds for falsification at all times, and the process of falsifying pre-existing moral positions is done through individual, subjective experience. As such, a person who empirically experiences that lying generally has negative consequences can maintain the fiction that lying is bad, while knowing that there is probably no objective grounds to defend this. Having not read Joyce, there is little doubt that I am going well over what definition he made of fictionalism; maybe it is closer to Olson's moral conservationism. Either way, Irwin seems to rejet both on the grounds that they too readily separate real life and abstract philosophical pondering, thus making the individual inclined to shed his make-believe morality whenever it would be convenient for him or her. Much like a person cannot easily shed an identity that it has itself construct, I don't believe that the kind of moral fictionalism I am describing can so easily be shed. Not unlike with science, such fictionalism would promote gradual evolutions in morality, possibly with occasional breakthroughs,  but nothing that would permit jumping and out of moral belief systems at will.

Speaking on Rawls and his Theory of Justice, one of my philosophy teachers told us in that the 20th century had been incredibly stale in terms of innovations in the field of political philosophy, and that environment, Rawls' Theory of Justice was a beacon of light when it came out. Considering the fact that libertarianism is largely based on ideas that hark back to Locke and Smith, I'd argue that Irwin has the potential to be the libertarian equivalent of Rawls. Nozick rivaled Rawls in terms of his systematic approach to think of justice, but it's precisely this fact that made him, in my opinion, under-read in libertarian circles: he's just not a fun read. Much like Rawls, Irwin throws the groundwork for heated debate both within our circles and outside of them, he presents a position which is both unusual and well grounded in literature, and he makes his point in that is accessible and layman-friendly. All of those factors make it, in my opinion, a very important contribution to political science and political philosophy as a whole, and to libertarianism in particular.

You can get Irwin's book on Amazon, and check out his academic page for more info on his work.