Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: The Free Market Existentialist

In this age of hyper-polarization over seemingly everything, many people find themselves bemoaning the state of academia. Universities are dominated by left wing professors that stifle intellectual exploration and on some college campuses by angry student mobs intent on enforcing ideological orthodoxy. Such attitudes are to the detriment of the true liberal spirit of inquiry that seeks to create a marketplace of ideas. With such a gray and gloomy backdrop, Dr. Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist shines forth like a much-needed burst of sunlight on a dreary day. In a work that is immensely intriguing, Dr. Irwin leads the reader to confront many points and questions that most will likely never have encountered, or at least not in his unique and thought provoking manner. The end result of which is a multitude of new questions and virgin intellectual wilderness ripe for exploration.

Irwin has three broad goals: to make the case for the compatibility of existentialism and capitalism, to explain the case for existentialist moral anti-realism, and finally to make the case for a minimal government state with strong property rights based on moral anti-realism. However, recognizing that such a trio of pills would likely be hard to swallow individually, let alone all three at once Irwin expresses his desire “to start a conversation, not conclude an argument.” I believe it can be said without hesitation that Irwin succeeds magnificently in accomplishing this goal.

I couldn’t hope to do justice to Dr. Irwin’s full arguments, but will attempt to communicate a brief summation with commentary on his main points.

Irwin begins his trio of heterodoxies by explaining what existentialism is. “Existentialism is 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.”  One need not be well versed in existentialist thought to easily understand Irwin’s discussion of the existentialist implications of concepts such as God, free will, meaning, and authenticity. This is one of the best chapters in the book and the level of awareness with which Irwin addresses topics that he knows are not only likely to be unfamiliar to the reader but also likely to be difficult to process as well plays a large role in how accessible this book is. His discussion of God and the death of God is especially noteworthy and stood out for his gentle and understanding treatment.

This chapter was by far my favorite and even if one does not buy into all of Irwin’s conclusions and arguments, one can’t help but feel inspired to strive to truly live and engage in a life of authenticity. Thoughtful people who often catch themselves wondering about the nature of life will certainly find a great deal of food for thought in this section.

In chapters two and three Irwin dives straight into what makes him such an outsider; his assertion that not only is existentialism not necessarily Marxist, but that it is also a natural partner for capitalism. In an excellent analogy, Irwin likens marxism to cigarettes for their relationship to existentialism. Both are associated with existentialism, not for any deeper philosophical reason, but rather by historical circumstances. Sartre is the main point of analysis in regards to this relationship with marxism in the form of an easy to understand intellectual history. Irwin also has insightful commentary on factors that result in many intellectuals’ hostility towards capitalism.

Existentialism is a natural fit for capitalism, Irwin argues, because of some of the overlapping characteristics that each share. Both are individualistic, but whereas capitalism does not necessarily need existentialism, existentialism greatly benefits from capitalism's ability to generate the circumstances in which “the purpose or meaning of life is itself created and can be manifested in art or commerce.” Likewise, existentialism can help to avoid potential downsides of capitalism that can lead to unhappiness. By emphasizing existentialism's call to live authentically and to take responsibility for one’s life, Irwin makes the case that members of capitalist societies can avoid the alienation and consumerism that many critics of capitalism fear. As Irwin puts it “I believe that it is the minimal state and the free market that are most likely to produce great human beings and great culture by placing the fewest possible restrictions on people and giving them the greatest possible motivation to be productive, not just for profit but for a sense of purpose.”

In chapters four and five Irwin moves on to putting forward his case for moral anti-realism. The rest of the book pales in comparison to the obviously controversial claim put forward that there is no morality. Even though numerous readers are sure to vehemently disagree, it is still a very engaging and thought-provoking section. Especially interesting is the way he uses evolutionary biology to simultaneously make the case for moral anti-realism and support the core claims of existentialism regarding how one is ultimately responsible for one’s own life.

The final two chapters lay out the groundwork to justify property rights and a minarchist state in a world without morality. One of the key points in this section is that “for the moral anti-realist, there are no property rights prior to contracts. There are only property claims.” Irwin goes on to analyze the differences between property claims and property rights and invoking the idea of dispersed knowledge and the inadequacy of central planning argues that “we can expect variety among sets of property rights contingent upon the circumstances in which claims are made and codified as rights.” There are lots of detailed points in this section regarding property rights that are quite thought provoking and worthy of further reflection. In fact, it seems to me that this section might have the most room for exciting exploration and synthesis with Rothbard’s idea in The Ethics of Liberty of rationally established natural law as well as Misesian style consequentialism such as that put forward in Henry Hazlitt’s The Foundations of Morality.

One of my favorite quotes from the entire book comes from the last chapter, Moral Anti-Realism. Irwin is addressing concerns about material inequality: “The envy and resentment that drive people to cry ‘no fair’ in response to the increasing inequality in wealth between the top earners and the bottom earners is misplaced. The bottom earners owe a debt of gratitude to the top for the spillover, which they did not earn and without which they would be worse off. As Nozick argues in Anarchy, State, and Utopia and as Rand depicts in Atlas Shrugged, the poor and unskilled need the wealthy and skilled more than vice versa.” There’s not much left to say after that.

I hope this brief review has communicated how expansive this short volume really is. There is certainly plenty to disagree with, but all of it is thought provoking. I hope that this review will encourage some people to pick the book up and then, ideally, begin to participate in the wider conversation that Dr. Irwin intended this book to ignite.

A big thank you to Dr. William Irwin who provided a copy of The Free Market Existentialist for me to review. If you are interested in reading the book, consider purchasing it through my Amazon associate link.

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