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. “
On the Book’s Subtitle: Capitalism Without Consumerism
So there’s often this great fear that capitalism is going to turn us all into mindless drone-like consumers. It’s as though we have no free choice in deciding for ourselves how we’re going to live, what we’re going to choose, what we are going to value. Again, I argue that personal freedom and responsibility is the exact message that people living in a capitalistic society need to hear. It’s the notion that one doesn’t need to drive a fancy car or wear certain clothes or things like that. Rather, you can define yourself by your own lifestyle choices versus what the rest of the world thinks.
On his Own Personal Lifestyle Choices
What suits me best is a kind of voluntary simplicity. I don’t indulge in a lot of flash and show. I’d rather have my time and money to spend in other ways that fulfill me more.
On Meaning and Purpose in Our Work
In the book, I take up existentialism as a remedy for alienation: one of the perceived problems of a capitalistic system. It’s the idea that people are working in jobs that they find meaningless and purposeless. That’s certainly a genuine issue, but one that in my estimation is more tied to an individual rather than to the system. I believe that virtually any job can be exercised to the point where it can be considered a calling, if the person adopts the right mindset. We should pursue a chosen line of work, instead of drifting into a life where one’s whole self esteem is bolstered by ornaments of status like driving a BMW. That being said, this should not preclude a person from working a job that they find meaningless because they desire enough time and money to pursue other activities that they find meaningful. In the end, these are all tradeoffs for which we have the freedom to take personal responsibility.
On the Trajectory of Life
I think our prevailing times are really hard on those who realize in mid-life that they’ve been on the wrong track. We all know people who were told to be an accountant or an engineer, simply because they were good at math when they may have wanted to make music, become an actor, or work with underprivileged children instead. Sadly, so many people have dreams they have shelved because they were told that what they were pursuing wasn’t practical. So I think there’s a greater hope for younger people if they simply give themselves a chance, at least while in their twenties, to pursue what they truly want to do for a living. I always tell students who ask me about this to imagine what they would be doing with their time if they won the lottery and if money were no object. Because it’s really a shame if people don’t give themselves the liberty, particularly in their early years, to pursue something they enjoy. Sure, not everyone is going to succeed as an actor, artist or whatever interests them, but at least they can pursue it with gusto.
On Taking Risks
No doubt, it’s a bit of a leap for most people to try new things. It takes a bold personality, which is why not everyone does it. But there are plenty of stories I can draw on from people I’ve worked with in the past, where the risk was worth it. One that comes to mind is a student of mine who wanted to work for the FBI. Problem was, he was essentially deaf and could only hear with the support of a hearing aid. So the thought was he wasn’t going to pass the FBI medical exam. But guess what? He found a way around that obstacle, and is now working for the FBI doing intelligence analysis.
On an Alternative Minimal State and Equal Tax
This is what will be perceived as a radical proposal in my book. Instead of a flat tax, which will charge everyone the same percentage, everyone would pay the same dollar amount. So there’s no progression in the amount.
I also argue in the book for a kind of minimal night-watchman State that simply protects against force, fraud and theft, and where the State is conceived as basically a club where you pay dues for membership, and everyone’s dues are the same. So if you want to become a member, you pay the dues. The initial reaction to this is that it represents an unsustainable and excessive amount that each individual must pay. Yet I argue that it’s only the case if you view it from the context of our current Federal budget which – at $4 trillion – is crazily out of control and needs to be cut considerably.
On Capitalism and How it’s Often Viewed Negatively
Although I try to avoid the term ‘Capitalism’ as much as I can, ‘Capitalism Without Consumerism’ is the subtitle of my book. Many people, especially on the left, are against capitalism. But if I propose capitalism without consumerism, then suddenly that sounds like a good deal to most people. Except they say that it is automatically impossible.
But back to the point about word choice and rhetoric. I have the same concern with using the word capitalism, and of course the word is rooted in Marxism. Sadly, it’s become a disparaging label and a misnomer, a notion that people get rich simply because they’ve hoarded capital, which is not the case. My preference is to address all of this from a property rights perspective, with which people will generally agree. In other words, you own your own person, so you own your own labor, so you should own the fruits of your own labor.
On the Book Chapter ‘What’s Mine Is Mine’
So this argument I make in the book of “What’s mine is mine” is intended to be provocative in that it’s what people hate to hear you say. It does not suggest that you couldn’t or wouldn’t share what you have. Rather, the argument is that we should be free to share voluntarily, instead of through coercion. I believe that under a true free-market system, people would have so much more wealth at their disposal that they would share, and you would therefore see a significant increase in charitable giving and activity. This is opposed to the sentiment of many people today who feel they have already given enough via tax payments that have, in a sense, been forcibly taken from them. Still, the thought exists that our world would be uncaring and unfeeling if we’re not taxed in order to take care of people in need. I think the message should be quite the opposite; that people would be more inclined to give and care for others in need if they could make this choice voluntarily.
On the Ultimate Aim of the Book
For me, it’s a message of personal empowerment. You get to chose how you live your life, and not just in the existential sense. Also, you get to choose how to live your life in terms of how you will spend your money and dispose of your property. That’s the part that has always struck me as missing from existentialism; namely, that individual freedom also has to extend into the economic realm.