Category: Individual & Economic Liberty

The Free Market Existentialist: Thoughts from Author William Irwin

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I ‘ve often regreted not having majored in philosophy as an undergraduate.

The courses I took in that field of study represented some of the most enriching intellectual experiences in my life. So now, at age 52, I cherish any chance to immerse myself in a great philosophy book, over a well-brewed cup of coffee. To me, this embodies the spirit and essence of a well-lived life!

So imagine my excitement at crossing Twitter paths with William Irwin, Professor & Chair of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Recognizing that philosophical insights can’t be restricted to 140 characters, we agreed to connect by phone.

Like a kid who finds himself wide-eyed at a fresh discovery, I was excited to learn that his new book, The Free Market Existentialist, is scheduled for release on October 20 ($21.95 in paperback, published by Wiley). Lucky for me, he sent me a draft manuscript to review. In his provocatively entitled book, Irwin incisively and engagingly argues that capitalism and existentialism are connected at the hip. He goes on to assert that the synthesis of these two doctrines offers a practical model for fostering a truly free-market minimal State that allows people to live how they please.

What makes this book particularly unique is its existentialist defense of libertarianism, bringing together two approaches that traditionally have been viewed as incompatible. Existentialists emphasize the importance of subjectively choosing one’s values and determining the meaning of one’s life. Libertarians champion strong property rights and the individual’s prerogative to live in any way that does not cause harm to others. Ultimately, individualism is the link between existentialism and libertarianism, producing a philosophy that values freedom and a corresponding responsibility.

The opportunity to converse with a leading thinker like William Irvin is one of the joys of my work as a journalist who examines the intersection between free markets and economic freedom. So I thought I’d share a few of his thoughts on the underpinnings of his own personal philosophy, his new book and his contributions to a fresh political world view.

On His Philosophical Leanings

As with most thinking individuals, Michael, that’s a long story! I would say that I, like a lot of libertarians, didn’t consider myself interested in politics at all until I was well into my 30s. To my mind, politics and political theory were a necessary evil, which I could happily ignore. But as I got older, I realized that I could no longer ignore that reality. So existentialist philosophy – along with social and economic philosophy – became the place to which I gravitated.

On How the Philosopher Sartre Informed his Thinking

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre came from an atheistic perspective, which follows my own. And the importance he placed on individual freedom and individual responsibility all sounded great; that is until later on in his career when he embraced Marxism. While I have no issue with people changing their minds and viewpoints, the vexing thing about Sartre was the fact that he never acknowledged that he had changed his views. Oddly, he somehow thought that his previous philosophy of freedom and responsibility dove-tailed well with Marxism.

On Writing The Free Market Existentialist

In many ways, I’ve long admired Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. But frankly, his political turn towards Marxism has always rubbed me the wrong way because it just never seemed to fit in with the rest of his philosophy which emphasized freedom and responsibility. For quite some time, I had it in mind to try to reconcile existentialism with capitalism and free-market thinking. So during my sabbatical, three years ago, that was the project I set for myself, and this is the book that emerged.

On Connecting the Dots Between Existentialism, Amoralism and Libertarianism

Yes, those are the three controversial themes that I stake out in the book and that I then weave together….

The first is what you and I have been discussing today, making the case that Sartre’s existentialist philosophy is not actually a good fit with Marxism. In the book, I argue that his views are instead a good fit with capitalism; the idea being that if we are free and responsible, capitalism is the economic system best suited for that.

Amoralism – or what I call moral anti-realism – embodies the thinking we saw as a result of an atheistic turn in philosophy, starting with Nietzsche. With that shift came the belief that somehow the whole world would go to hell in a hand basket. But what we are discovering is that atheists are no better or worse than the average person in terms of how one might judge their actions or behavior.

And from a libertarian point of view, I argue that freedom and responsibility are actually a good thing; that they help the cause of capitalism by serving as a sort of a cure for the things that people tend to worry about in a capitalistic society. “

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Women, Free Markets and Liberty: Hadley Manning

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As the director of health policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, Hadley Heath Manning is someone who is constantly in motion. I had the pleasure of meeting her, shortly after watching a panel she moderated early this year on emerging health care issues. As luck would have it, we recently reconnected at Denver Liberty On The Rocks discussion forum on Feminism and Liberty.

To say that Hadley is a busy professional is an understatement. She is a frequent guest on radio and TV outlets across the country, exploring the intersection between women, free markets, personal liberty and health care. She has appeared on Fox Business’ Cavuto on Business, The John Stossel Show and Fox News’ Hannity Show. In addition, her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Politico, National Review Online and many others media.

Hadley was kind enough to slow down for 29 minutes for a few questions from me about the intersection between women, free markets and personal liberty. Here are some brief excerpts from our discussion:

On her interest in Free Enterprise

What a lot of people don’t know is that my grandfather was a big champion of the free enterprise system. He actually wrote five books about free enterprise and political philosophy. So no doubt I inherited some of his passion for these principles, even though he lived during a very different time.

These books talk a lot about how free enterprise allows all of us the dignity of working for ourselves; a key element to achieving an enhanced quality of life. Ronald Reagan once said something to the effect that “Freedom isn’t passed along in the blood stream. It has to be defended, generation by generation.” Yet I do think that some of my love for freedom was passed through to me via DNA.

On her Philosophy

While I was in college, I literally questioned everything. It led me to wonder whether my family somehow brainwashed me into believing certain things. So I really went through a hard time in terms of what I believed. A major turning point for me during college was a trip to India’s West Bengal where I witnessed poverty first-hand like I’d never seen before. It’s a region that had been burdened by socialist programs for quite some time. This trip made me really appreciate how free enterprise has benefitted the U.S. and allowed us to create so much wealth as a nation. 

5 Ways to Create an Extra $500 a Month

Piggy BankIt’s becoming increasingly popular for Millennials to save their money instead of increasing their debt. This generation, while engendering the start-up boom, is simultaneously spending and saving wisely. This powerful shift in financial consciousness is partly a response to the devastating burden of student loans. With projected retirement at 65 becoming increasingly unattainable for Baby Boomers, Millenials understand this caution and know that a key factor here is one’s early creation of a meaningful personal savings account. I know, because I’m a Millennial myself and my entire financial strategy revolves around how much I can save each month.

I read about a younger couple who have cut their spending down so they can put away 71% of their income each month. I’m proud to say I’ve created a savings plan of about 55% a month, and it’s VERY do-able. Can you imagine saving an extra $500 a month? What would that mean for your overall savings plan? Here are a handful of ways to save/earn an extra $500 a month – or more – and increase your overall savings.

1. Don’t buy a drink at dinner. I won’t tell you to not go out to eat, although I can advise that getting food delivered or ordering take-out can save 15-20% off the price of a sit-down restaurant bill. Buying a drink at dinner can cost you close to the price of your meal. Most sit-down restaurants offer a cocktail menu ranging from $7-12 a drink, except during Happy Hour. So after two beers or two glasses of wine, you have run up a $14 pre-tax beverage bill, yet you hardly even have a buzz on

Are Government Regulations Strangling Free Enterprise?

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Everywhere you turn these days, it seems like business environments are becoming increasingly choked with regulatory morass. Tragically, these barriers to free enterprise and economic freedom are having a chilling effect on the ability of business owners and individuals to achieve financial success.

In my opinion, government’s proper role when it comes to business and commerce should be restricted to the following:

(1) Protect property rights.

(2) Adjudicate disputes between two or more parties.

(3) Provide a legal framework whereby voluntary trade is protected.

Efforts by statists to redistribute wealth or control or manage the voluntary exchange of goods or services are inappropriate in a free society.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Anthony Sanders, Senior Attorney with the Institute for Justice, about how IJ is responding to the full-on assault taking place against economic liberty, private property, freedom of speech and other individual liberties at federal, state and local levels across the country. Here is an excerpt from our discussion:

Anthony, what sorts of barriers are being erected that are hindering free market competition in America?

Clearly, there are lots of emerging and long-standing barriers in all facets of economic life. The ones that are especially pernicious and that we focus on here at IJ are occupational licensing restrictions. Back in the 1950s, 1 in 20 people needed a license to work; today it’s 1 in 3 people. This trend is being driven in large part by people whose motive it is to use licensure to fence out the competition. We regularly see instances where government places undue restrictions on businesses and people who are just trying to earn an honest living. This is an ever-growing threat to entrepreneurial freedom.

Are there particular types of businesses that are being most affected by these barriers?

Those most affected by these laws are often small practitioners who don’t have the credentialing required by cartels. Unfortunately, the majority of these folks have neither the savvy nor the money to battle against these barriers. This is where we at IJ step in from a First Amendment context to protect the rights of those seeking to earn an honest living in their businesses and professions.

7 Reasons You May Want To Skip College

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I have long believed in the importance of a formal education. My father was a university administrator, and my mother a K-12 school teacher. Both placed high value on the pivotal role that education plays in determining one’s fate in life. So there is no doubt that the value of education is deeply ingrained in my genetic code.

As I was crafting this article, a buddy of mine who runs a computer repair service in Denver was intrigued when I revealed the topic. He mentioned his own experience of having dropped out of college three times, unsure of what he wanted to focus on. “While I appreciate to this day what I did learn in terms of accounting, critical thinking, economics and liberal arts,” he said, “my life became directed toward more practical interests in the work world. So I never went back to complete a degree.”

I often find myself reflecting on those who may feel pressured by family, friends and society to go to college even if they may not, like my computer friend, be deriving practical value from it. Regrettably from a very early age, we are all pushed down this narrow trajectory which suggests that higher education is the ‘be all and end all’ route to achievement.

My life and that of my brother certainly swung into this jet stream, compliments of parental influence and other mitigating factors. In 1986, I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology–an achievement that elicited that oft heard refrain from others of “So what are you going to do with that?” Comments from the peanut gallery aside, I did go on to a successful career as a health care human resources executive before graduating from a west coast university twenty years later with a Masters of Public Administration in Health Services Administration.

My brother, with a couple of Masters Degrees under his belt, has been pursuing credits towards an interdisciplinary PhD…. even though he is in the enviable position of already having a secure future as a result of his ongoing stint in the military.

Bucking The Traditional Education Paradigm

Despite having received a job offer three days after getting my Bachelor’s Degree, my father made a startling comment and quasi ultimatum. “Son, you should always have a backup plan. So even though you have an offer on the table, I strongly suggest that you go and apply at Sears Roebuck.”

Independent Workers AND Businesses: Be Damned!

 

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Over the past couple of months, I’ve been engaged in a spirited debate with a friend regarding how employers are increasingly classifying workers as independent contractors, instead of W-2 wage employees.

So what’s fueling our dialogue? In short, the practice she works for is currently facing a decision as to whether the independent contractors they’ve long relied upon to perform operational and administrative duties should now be reclassified as W-2 staff. This issue has surfaced largely due to recent evidence of a crackdown on the part of the IRS and other government agencies against employers who have utilized independent contractors in defiance of prevailing regulations. While disagreeing with the intent of the law requiring employers to serve as a de facto middle man for ensuring that tax revenues are consistently collected and accounted for, she is correct in asserting that violating the law opens her employer up to some serious consequences, including some pretty hefty fines.

As a former human resources executive, now a business owner, who is well acquainted with the adverse bottom line ramifications of W-2 staffing, I believe that independent contractors are the way to go in terms of operational cost effectiveness. In reality, it can make all the difference in the world in terms of whether a company, such as the one at which my friend works, will ultimately survive financially. So for the vast majority of small and emerging businesses (which represent the fastest growing segment of the U.S. economy), the decision can come down to either breaking the law or keeping their doors open. It’s can be as simple as that.

Non-Compliant Businesses Face a Government Smackdown

Media buzz on this topic has been plentiful of late, as federal and state governments appear hell-bent in their efforts to stymie this independent contractor classification movement. On the other hand, the general consensus among business leaders is that this sort of crackdown will stifle innovation while making the cost of doing business onerously expensive. Many of these leaders say that this may force them to eliminate jobs in order for their businesses to remain buoyant and profitable.

Adding gasoline to this debate were the recent campaign speech comments made by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, when she strongly endorsed redefining current independent contractors as employees. To me, this reflects the One Size Fits All Herd Mentality that statists constantly perpetuate. In a sense, what’s she’s saying to independent workers is ‘because we think businesses are out to screw you, let US define what a proper employment relationship looks like.’ Like a cow chewing over the same old cud, this view is another tired version of Industrial Age thinking that employees and the businesses for whom they choose to work are controlled by government as well as powerful side interests.

 

The Plight of Today’s W-2 Worker

And what about those who are currently W-2 wage employees? How do they really feel? Many with whom I cross paths tell me they appreciate having a steady paycheck and benefits. But in the same breath, I hear them howl like jackals at the onerous restrictions they are often placed under as a result of ‘working for The Man’. Many of them are quietly miserable yet hanging on for dear life because the work they are doing offers a sense of security. If you were to corner them for the truth, they would likely reveal their longing for a gig which allows them the freedom to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, and get well paid along the way. This mindset is particularly common among free-spirited millennials who see little value in the 9-5 Protestant Ethic, or retiring with the gold watch lifestyle that appealed to their parents’ generation.

Sadly, growing numbers of us independent contractors may be forced into choices that we may or may not want to make, if this W-2 movement gains traction. It’s here that political know-it-alls pretend to pose as advocates for today’s workers, while having little in the way of on-the-ground context in the larger economic milieu. For if the power elite in government gets their way, it will only serve to drive businesses to scale back and send work overseas in an attempt to remain financially viable. In the meantime, consumers could be harmed by reduced services and higher prices. And our nation’s independent contractors, well, this will simply be another sign that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is just a hollow mantra with no real substance.

Listen to your Lyft Driver, not Political Leaders

I happen to love the ride-sharing service Lyft. As a free-spirited city dweller, I revel in the thought of not owning a car nor having the cost and inconvenience of gas, maintenance, parking, auto registration and car payments. And, honestly, I get more real world information from the drivers in terms of how our economy really works than I do from all those sorry political leaders at the executive and legislative branches of government, replete with their single-digit approval ratings.

By way of example, I just talked to a 76 year-old driver a few weeks ago who discovered that his retirement isn’t quite what he thought it would be. Then there is the computer programmer who left a job he hated, and is now making just as much driving cars while having time on the side to start his IT business. And how about the single mom who is earning a little extra money on the side, fueling her endeavor to go back to graduate school.

This is just one example of how the the sharing economy, via flexible contract work arrangements, is boosting personal incomes as well as the overall economy in general. Thanks to mobile technology, the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Creative work arrangements, innovation, flexible jobs, and a fresh set of consumer options – all have ensued from this new normal of work relationships. But I do worry that one day this wonderful set of freedoms will no longer be available, due to status quo thinkers who want to see the independent worker-driven sharing economy destroyed. Whether it’s Lyft, Robert Half, AirBNB, or eLance, the impact in its full manifestation would be widespread.

So What’s REALLY Behind the Government’s Stance?

The rationale is pure and simple. Workers classified as W-2 offer a more efficient way for the federal and state governments to ensure timely collection and accountability for tax revenues. Period!

In some ways, I can’t argue with this because it is in the same vein as a for-profit business; the government wants its money pronto. In other ways, I get ticked when I hear about how this tax collection method has become a priority amid shortfalls caused by other forms of IRS inefficiencies.

The bottom line is that payroll taxes are a cash cow. The more workers who are classified as employees, the more milk and honey flows into government coffers, and the harder it is for workers to underreport or hide their income from the tax authorities.

Government officials lament the fact that independent contractor misclassification schemes deprive state and federal treasuries of billions of dollars in tax revenues. Moreover, they note that laws have existed for quite some time to clarify who is and is not an independent contractor. The key principle, according to the Labor Department’s 15-page guidance memo, is “whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer or truly in business for him or herself.”

Clear enough? Well, not so fast, as there is certainly an argument to be made that many businesses that misclassify their workers do so unintentionally, because the guidelines – when you put a shovel to them – are as clear as mud. Then when it is revealed that a business is in violation, the employer is reluctant to make the change, largely because for every contractor who is reclassified as an employee, there is an additional 20-30% in payroll and benefit costs assumed by the business.

This reminds me of a past client of mine, a weight-loss practice that elected to follow the rulebook by the letter and classify all staff as W-2 wage earners. Sick of hearing all of the griping and complaining among her team regarding how little they were being paid, the owner took the extraordinary step of revealing all of the financials of the business at one of their staff meetings. One of the employees, after a meticulous review of the report, immediately chimed in with what she detected was the reason for their paltry pay scale. “What’s this expense?” she blurted out. “If you made a cut to this, you could give us all a $2-3 raise.” Bemused, the owner retorted, “Well, those are the taxes I have to pay to the IRS on behalf of each of you team members, every pay period.”

As a postscript, it should be noted that this highly acclaimed weight-loss practice went out of business.

My Proposed End Game

So let’s conclude with two opposing end game scenarios, along with a third option.

First, if the government powers that be force an end to the contractor designation, employers will have to take on massive new burdens like withholding tax, providing health insurance and offering unemployment insurance, in addition to being subjected to myriad other onerous rules and regulations. And startups and early-stage businesses, needing additional talent while facing low profit margins, will be dead on arrival.

The second and more reasonable scenario in my estimation is to continue to allow some fluidity in the prevailing contractor laws. That way the workers become the real capitalists. They have the freedom to work when they are most productive, maintain their own equipment, and they have the flexibility to take time for family and other leisure pursuits. This arrangement also allows a flexible staffing model that’s amenable to fluctuating workloads. Businesses can hire people for short-term tasks and projects without having to endure the trauma, expense and legal issues associated with firings and layoffs.

Finally, there is a hybrid option where the federal government could require contractors to set up a business entity and bank account where they are paid under the business name. Then either on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, that contractor would initiate a W-2 payroll check from their business (through the use of an inexpensive payroll service) with the requisite taxes taken out. The benefits of this option would be the following triple-win proposition:

(1) IRS gets their money on a timely basis.

(2) IRS would no longer have to track and match up 1099s to ensure that they are not being stiffed by underreporting subcontractors, a loophole they are policing rather poorly.

(3) Contractors receive often overlooked tax deduction advantages as a result of having all of their money funneled through their business entity.

(4) The business owner has the freedom to manage their own destiny by becoming their own form of venture capitalist.

In the end the goal here is to provide thoughtful middle ground that offer a measure of worker freedom along with IRS compliance without being onerous to the employer.

Michael Scott is a Denver based writer specializing in feature stories targeting the intersection between free markets and social and economic freedom. He can be reached on Twitter @biz_michael