What is existentialism and what does it have to do with living a good life?
According to William Irwin, author of The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism, existentialism is a philosophy of life 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 person1.
The existentialist finds himself thrust into an uncaring world that he did not ask to be part of. He finds absurdity in his existence. The world and life are inherently meaningless.
Absurdity is apparent in the fact that there is no ultimate justice; evil goes unpunished; virtue is not rewarded.
Think of the absurdity in trying to keep up with the Joneses instead of pursuing our own happiness; standing in long-lines on black Friday instead of spending time with family; or working at a job you loathe for 30-40 years only to spend your last few years you have left feeble and old.
Alanis Morissette points out the absurdity of life with the lyrics from her song “Ironic”:
He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
And as the plane crashed down he thought:
“Well, isn’t this nice.”
Irwin doesn’t spend much time establishing the premise that life is meaningless and absurd. He seems to assume that the reader has already accepted these premises.
Irwin fails to address commonly held beliefs that provide alternative narratives to a meaningless universe. For example, many people believe that there is some cosmic justice in this world. They believe in karma, “what goes around comes around”. Others, hold the New Age belief that the universe really does care about us. Still, others maintain that if we search long enough, we can discover our meaning or purpose in life.
One might think that the existentialist would fall into despair, given his outlook on life. But, the existentialist rejects despair. How can this be?
The existentialist finds radical freedom in the fact that life is meaningless. Since life does not come with a preordained meaning, one must create meaning for himself. He must also accept responsibility for his life, and accept responsibility for creating meaning.
The existentialist has no one to blame for failing to find meaning. If he wishes to reject alienation and despair, he must to rise to the occasion and create meaning for himself.
People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds; it is something one creates.
— Thomas Szasz
The Free Market
What does the free market have to do with creating meaning and rejecting despair?
For Irwin, the free market provides the greatest opportunity to pursue one’s own interests and creativity in life and in work. The free market allows the existentialist to work part-time for Uber or Amazon delivery while pursuing creative writing, for example.
The free market gives unprecedented choices to the consumer in the types of consumption he partakes in or chooses to reject. The free market has brought radical freedom of choice to the existentialist, and he heartily accepts it.
Irwin believes that a self-conscious, self-directed existentialist will choose simplicity and eschew consumerism. But, the choice is up to the individual.
Ultimately, guided by prudence, the free market existentialist will pursue whatever she deems to be desirable and in her enlightened self-interest2.
Morality, Property Rights, and The Minimal State
Irwin spends the rest of the book writing about morality, property rights, and the need for a minimal state. I found this section of the book less interesting, but still enjoyable.
If you are interested in existentialism, and personal freedom, the book, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism Without Consumerism was definitely worth the read.
Life is absurd and meaningless. We must create meaning for ourselves. The free market provides the best opportunity for the individual shape his life and work into whatever he finds meaningful. A minimal state is required to keep things working.
What do you think? Is the life inherently meaningless and absurd? Can we reject despair and create meaning for ourselves? Let me know in the comments below.