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The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism

Existentialism and free market capitalism are not often seen as complimentary. Rather, more often than not, due to the influence of the famous French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialism is associated with communism. But in the fascinating book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism, author William Irwin attempts to make the case that free-market capitalism, and the political philosophy most often associated with it, libertarianism, fit surprisingly well with the existentialist point of view. As Irwin explains:

“The main link between existentialism and libertarianism is individualism. The individual is primary and the individual is responsible. Granted, the sense of individualism characteristic of existentialism is not exactly the same as the sense of individualism characteristic of libertarianism, but they are not foreign to each other, inasmuch as both strive for genuine autonomy. Libertarians have long recognized the importance of strong property rights in securing autonomy, and existentialists have long recognized the importance of choosing meaning and subjective values for oneself in developing authenticity. One sense does not necessarily imply the other, but they do fit together well.” (The Free Market Existentialist, William Irwin)

To make his case for the good fit between existentialism and free-markets Irwin sees it as essential to address one of the most common critiques of free-market capitalism, namely that it creates a population of “mindless drones who simply buy and consume.” (Irwin) This wide-spread belief that capitalism inevitably gives rise to a consumerist culture has caused many people to reject capitalism without even examining if such a belief is valid. Irwin, not surprisingly, argues that not only does capitalism not inevitably lead to consumerism, but furthermore capitalism offers existentialists a great opportunity to engage in the important task of self-definition, as he puts it:

“Capitalism allows us to vote and freely choose in practically all consumer choices. Of course the temptation is to let our tastes and desires be formed by those around us, but there is nothing necessary about that. And the existentialist, who is keenly aware of, and engaged in, the task of self-definition, will find that capitalism affords her a wide variety of choices that can aid, rather than hinder, her in self-definition. . .With the great freedom of choice that capitalism affords, the existentialist can look at capitalism as an opportunity rather than as an evil. While dealing with consumer culture may be difficult, it is just the kind of challenge the existentialist can relish for its opportunity to exercise responsibility and grow through challenge.” (The Free Market Existentialist, William Irwin)

In the process of arguing the case for the compatibility of free markets and existentialism, Irwin explores a number of fascinating philosophical and economic topics. He provides great explanations of existentialism and free markets, as well as discussing the knowledge problem, the fictionalist approach to free-will, evolutionary ethics, moral anti-realism (i.e. “the metaphysical view that there are no moral facts”), an analysis of Sartre’s adoption of communism, and how Friedrich Nietzsche’s views fit with free-market capitalism. I highly recommend The Free Market Existentialist as it provides a unique perspective which deserves more consideration among both those who are pro-free markets and those who consider themselves existentialists.