Free Market Fool

The Free Market Existentialist, Capitalism Without Consumerism is a 2015 book by Willam Irwin and published by Wiley Blackwell. Irwin is the “General Editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series” and the “Herve A. LeBlanc Distinguished Service Professor and Chair of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania, USA.” This from the back of the paperback sent to me by Laura Fabiani at iRead Book Tours. I agreed to provide an honest review in exchange for a complimentary copy of the book. Laura declined to post my review on her blog. I agreed not to post my review until after her “book tour” ended on 10 December.

Irwin’s book starts with the words “I am all alone . . . in the intersection of circles in a Venn diagram . . . a set of free market philosophers and . . . the set of existentialist philosophers.” Not unlike the beginning of perhaps my favorite twentieth century book, Murphy by Samuel Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative on nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free . . . . alone in his chair of undressed teak . . . ” Beckett’s book is a comic masterpiece. This one by Irwin, not so much.

Unlike Dante’s circles of Hell, which were concentric, Irwin’s circles overlap only at the center, where he stands as what he imagines is the solitary member of groups advocating three kinds of ideology: 1) the free market, 2) existentialism and 3) moral anti-realism.

Free Market Fool

The Free Market

Irwin defines the free market as “an economic system in which the government plays no role aside from providing rule of law and protecting property rights.” No public schools, no public libraries, no GI bill, no welfare, presumably child labor and unchecked pollution of the commons by private individuals. A return, it seems, to the world of Dickens’s London praised by the nineteenth century liberal, Herbert Spencer (in The Man versus the State, for example). I have explored what I consider to be a devastating rebuttal to this theory by Karl Polanyi here. But Irwin says he doesn’t want to convince us that the free market would be a “superior system” (and could actually exist.) No, he maintains that his purpose is to make the case that the existentialists should really have embraced what he insists in calling the “free market.” The fact that none of these existentialists seem to have done so (Kierkegaard was a radical protestant, Sartre a Marxist, Heidegger a Nazi, Nietzsche contemptuous of the philistinism that he saw in bourgeois life) is part of what he tries to explain (away).

Irwin says “there is a lot that is ugly and unappealing about capitalism,” but what he means here is the tendency of capitalism to encourage consumerism, a vice of which he claims to be mostly innocent. What of capitalism’s other ills: its tendency to create a large mass of relatively impoverished people while a tiny minority become obscenely rich, its tendency to periodically collapse or its rapacious devastation of the commons? Not a problem, according to Irwin, as will become clear below.

He seems to think that the main problem with capitalism is consumerism. He says “for an existentialist to dismiss capitalism because of such things (consumerism) is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” He then immediately goes on to reference Ayn Rand, whose fictional character, Howard Roark, “does not design any structure for the sake of money, and he is quick to reject a job if he can’t do it on his own terms.” He wouldn’t be so quick to reject a job if he had been born as a Bangladeshi farmer moved off of his land by sea level rise. The commitment of Rand and Irwin to free market ideology seems to be pure; in other words, unconnected to worldly concerns of survival, much less profit. But does lack of realism make their ideology true? No; only disconnected from the rest of the story of capitalism’s reality. Irwin’s capitalism is that of the Rotary Club motto “he who serves best profits least.” Of the garment workers locked in a factory in Bangladesh and burnt to death in a fire, he speaks not a word.

In the remainder of this review, I will refer to what Irwin calls his embrace of the “free market” as libertarianism, since this view seems to be co-equal with the views of libertarians like Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick, all of whom he quotes or references.


The second circle of Irwin’s Venn diagram is existentialism. Here he relies mostly on what seems to be a pretty good understanding of the development of the thought of J.P. Sartre. The problem here is that while Sartre’s early magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, is pretty easy for a libertarian to embrace, Sartre’s turn to Marxism (Irwin calls it a “conversion”), after serving in the Resistance against the Nazis and being held in a prisoner of war camp, is a problem for Irwin’s thesis. Irwin is anxious to see this as a “historical, cultural accident.” Sartre turned to Marxism because he spent a lot of time in smoky bars after the war full of left-wing intellectuals. Another possible explanation, that this turn by Sartre was a result of maturity gained during the war years, Irwin doesn’t entertain.

Moral Anti-realism

The third circle in Irwin’s world is what he calls “moral anti-realism”. His definition for this is “the metaphysical view that there are no moral facts”. To explain this he says that while he accepts that humans have a “core morality” derived from their evolutionary history, he denies that these “moral beliefs, concepts, or feelings” are based in moral facts. But what are moral facts? Is the statement “Suffering is bad” a moral fact or an illusion? Is this feeling to which this statement refers any less “real” than chairs, say, or the second law of thermodynamics? Aren’t chairs “really” just jumbles of atoms moving in (relatively) enormous space? Is our everyday experience of them more “real” than our feeling that pain is bad. The debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists has been raucous in the twentieth century and beyond. One of the proponents of the anti-realist position, Richard Joyce, who is liberally quoted in Irwin’s book, wrote a summary of this debate in what is the gold standard of reference platforms in philosophy these days, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His conclusions are not promising:

”This entry has not attempted to adjudicate the rich and noisy debate between the moral realist and moral anti-realist, but rather has attempted to clarify just what their debate is about. But even this much more modest task is doomed to lead to unsatisfactory results, for there is much confusion—perhaps a hopeless confusion—about how the terms of the debate should be drawn up. . . .The embrace of moral anti-realism, it is assumed, will have a pernicious influence. This concern presupposes that most of the folk are already pretheoretically inclined toward moral realism—an assumption that was queried in the supplementary document Moral Anti-realism vs. Realism: Intuitions. But even if it is true that most people are naive moral realists, the question of what would happen if they ceased to be so is an empirical matter, concerning which neither optimism nor pessimism seems prima facie more warranted than the other. As with the opposition to moral non-objectivism, the opposition to moral anti-realism is frequently based on an under-estimation of the resources available to the anti-realist—on an unexamined assumption that the silliest, crudest, and/or most insidious version will stand as a good representative of a whole range of extremely varied and often sophisticated theories.”

Whether or not we can sort out where we stand in this debate, the important question, it seems, is what Irwin does with his clear preference for the anti-realist position. He thinks that moral beliefs are based not in metaphysically “real” facts but on our evolutionary history. And it is here that he brings in something that seems contradictory to his embrace of free market ideology. He says (page 5) “The development of moral feelings, a kind of ‘core morality’ rooted in reciprocity, was adaptive for humans living in groups (my emphasis).” Whether or not morality can be grounded in “moral facts,” it seems that Irwin grounds his anti-realist beliefs in the adaptive nature of human development in groups. How does this fit with Irwin’s embrace of the free market? To my mind, it simply doesn’t. He devotes the last three chapters of his book to trying to convince us that these two positions are compatible. How does he do?

Is Moral Anti-realism Compatible with Free Market Ideology?

Irwin would have us believe that while there cannot be any metaphysical grounding of morality in facts, because our beliefs are rather the result of our evolutionary history, this is consistent with a libertarian view of society and government. How does Irwin get from “adaptive for humans living in groups” to embracing “minimal government” and “the minimal state.” Having read the last three chapters of Irwin’s book, my answer would be “by libertarian dogmatism.”

What I find in these last chapters is not a convincing argument as to how the libertarian world view can be justified by our evolutionary history, but instead a string of unsubstantiated declarations, many of them ripped out of the mouths of right wing libertarian writers like Murray Rothbard, Fredrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, the Cato Institute and the Wall Street Journal editorial page team. In these chapters we find the following quotes:

• “Of course we may choose to sell our labor for pay and give up claims to the direct fruits of our labor.” (What about the Bangladeshi workers I mentioned earlier?)
• “It is best to let property law develop spontaneously . . . . just as government is inefficient at planning an economy, it is inefficient at planning a legal system.” (See my summary of Oscar Lange’s rebuttal of this argument.)
• “And as the free market existentialist sees it, it is up to each of us to play the hand that we are dealt.” (By whom?)
• “There is simply no such thing as distributive justice because things such as wealth and beauty don’t need to be distributed.” (Perhaps, but why is this based on our evolutionary history?)
• “If I cannot be shown to have done anything wrong in terms of force, fraud, or theft in acquiring my current holdings, then the holdings are justly mine.” (Proudhon didn’t agree! And how is this justified by evolutionary history?)
• “That virtually every American has internet access makes even the poor wealthier than previous generations could imagine.” (Tell that to the thousands of homeless in America’s cities.)
• “The demand for approximate equality of outcomes, to the extent that it is natural, is one of the most obnoxious things about us as humans.” (But as you allow that this is based in our evolutionary past, how does this tell you that it is “obnoxious.”)
• “But the truth is that the government has no money of its own; it can only redistribute what it takes from its citizens.” (What part of ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’ don’t you understand?)
• “The opposite of ‘we’re all in this together’ is ‘you are on your own.’” (Again, as explained by our evolutionary history, or by the Cato Institute?)
• “The envy and resentment that drive people to cry “not fair’ in response to the increasing inequality in wealth between top earners and bottom earners is misplaced.” (I can understand why Donald Trump would approve of this statement, but not so sure as to why this is justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’.)
• “Our lives and liberty are in that sense our property, in need of protection.” (I get the “lives” part and Hobbes would agree, but how is property justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’?”
• “The free market is a much better arbiter of the worth of a degree from one college to another than the government agency could be.” (Have you read Propaganda by Edward Bernays?)
• “Markets do not necessarily require governments and governments certainly do not create markets.” (Interesting claim. How justified?)
• “Money is property, and the tyranny of the majority enacts a law that takes more of it from a minority group than from the majority group. This is nothing short of theft.” (And what about the accumulation of wealth of that minority? One of Marx’s most important (and well-taken) points was that social product is the product of all, but because the workers have an individual contract with the capitalist, the capitalist unjustly expropriates the entire surplus which has been due at least in part to the social form of production. I have addressed this here, from a perspective critical of Marx’s labor theory of value. And how is this justified by ‘adaptive for humans living in groups’?)
• Referring to his “equal tax” proposal, he says “. . . I believe that it is unlikely, given the way the economy would likely flourish under such a system.” (An amazing reference to supply-side economics, totally refuted by post-Reagan economic history. See my post here.)
• “ . . . . the person who is discontent should be free to leave and form a new state or to go to another state, including the state of nature.” (Another amazing quote. Let the refugees from Syria eat cake!)

Have I given enough quotes from Irwin? I think I have given enough for me to conclude that he is a dogmatic libertarian ideologue whose arguments may resonate with many, but which leave me profoundly unconvinced. I am actually quite sympathetic to moral anti-realism or its closely associated theory, moral scepticism. But I do not conclude from the explanation of morality as deriving from “adaptive for humans living in groups” that a free market could actually exist, much less be a realistic solution for human thriving.

A quote from US Senator Elizabeth Warren is apt here:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate…. Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

To imagine, as Irwin does, that capitalism is productive solely as a result of individual initiative, is to me a simple fantasy. Capitalism has succeeded in dramatic increases in productivity partly because of human initiative, but more profoundly as a result of social cooperation. It is a pure libertarian fantasy to think otherwise.

Climate Change Foolery

There is no mention of the words “climate change” in Irwin’s book. This is puzzling because the propensity of the “invisible hand” to encourage pollution of the earth’s atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would seem to be a glowing potential counterexample to Irwin’s embrace of the free market. Even the defenders of global capitalism (in the Stern commission report) have called global warming “the greatest market failure the world has ever see.” Why doesn’t Irwin, as an advocate for minimal government, wrestle a little at least with this negative consequence of a free market economy? Well, he doesn’t address this here, but in 2010 he did in an article published in the libertarian magazine, Reason. He addresses it by what he calls “skepticism” of the theory of anthropogenic climate change (global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, moderation of the ocean’s currents). His evidence? Mainly arguments by well-known climate change deniers Don Easterbrook and Willie Soon.

Easterbrook is a retired geologist from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. In his emeritus years he has been an active presenter at climate denial conferences sponsored by the Heartland Institute and the shadowy Western Institute for Study of the Environment. Irwin’s paper shows a figure from an Easterbrook talk showing that temperatures of Greenland ice cores over the last 15,000 years show a drop in temperature up to “the present.” The reference from the Western Institute for Study of the Environment has disappeared. The trouble with Easterbrook’s thesis is that the present to which he refers is actually 1855, just prior to the beginning of the significant global warming presented in the IPCC reports. See here for a full rebuttal to Easterbrook’s argument. Easterbrook predicted in 2008 that “historic records of past natural cycles suggest global cooling for the first several decades of the 21st century to about 2030.” Turns out that the first decade of that period has been the hottest on record.

The other prominent resource upon whom Irwin relies is Willie Soon, part-time Astrophysicist at the Harvard-Simthsonian Center for Astrophysics and an “expert” for the Heartland Institute. A 2003 paper in the journal Climate Science by Soon and his co-author Sallie Baliliunas provided a review of 240 papers in climate science and concluded that “Across the world, many records reveal that the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium.” This conclusion was very soon afterwards contradicted by several prominent climate scientists and led to the resignation of three editors at the journal over the issue of inadequate peer review. It turns out that Soon’s research over the years had been largely funded by the fossil fuel industry including such usual suspects as the Koch Brothers Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute and Exon Mobil.

Irwin and his co-author Brian Williams conclude their 2010 article with the words “We are ready and willing to embrace AGW (anthropogenic global warming) theory if the scientific evidence ultimately points in that direction. In fact, as of this writing, 2010 is shaping up to be a warm year that may depart from the recent flat period. If 2010 begins a new warming trend, that would certainly count against skepticism and cause us to reevaluate the merits of AGW theory.” 2010 was not only a warm year, but the evidence is now in that 2014 was the warmest year in recorded history; yet, there is no mention of this in Irwin’s 2015 book. This is quite typical of climate change deniers; they maintain that they are “skeptics” who represent the best qualities of science, but when facts that falsify their theories are presented, they are silent or stick to their narrative. There is a word for this type of attitude, “dogmatism.” Not a promising attitude for a philosopher.


This book is full of contradictions, and not the good contradictions that occur at the limits of thought which I have talked about here and here, but the bad contradictions in which the consequences of the author’s statements invalidate statements that he makes elsewhere. For example, Irwin says “it is not the purpose of this book to argue for the superiority of the free market” on page 2, but on page 74 he says “By advocating the free market I am not advocating greed” (even though he references Ayn Rand, who praised it, with reverence.) He says that “the state should be restricted to acting as a night watchman, protecting us against force, fraud, and theft” (page 162), but how can the state determine what is fraud or theft if “nothing is wrong” (the title to Chapter 4 on page 89?) While he claims that it is not money that motivates his embrace of the free market (page 74 and following) he reminds us that “Shakespeare wrote his plays for money (page 84).”

It is clear enough that I find this book extremely distasteful. I am particularly disturbed by what I can only call Irwin’s bad faith with regard to climate change. I would hope that few would embrace his message of amoral free market existentialism. To those who would be tempted, I would just say, “Caveat emptor.”

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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