Individual Responsibility and the Pursuit of Meaning and Happiness in a Free Market

Despite the great abundance a relatively free market has brought to the world at least since the industrial revolution, there’s no lack of critics who seek to overhaul and replace it with a more ideal system in light of their values and ideologies. The system we’re living under encourages greed and numbs people to a nihilistic materialism, the Socialists contend, for instance, leading people to become overweight, devoid of any sense of meaning or happiness in life, and blindly following along with the system they’ve been placed in. “We work jobs that we hate to buy sh*t that we don’t need,” as the sentiment is expressed in the movie Fight Club. The nihilism and consumerism plaguing the minds of the populace in our Brave New World is attributed to the upper class: The rich and greedy capitalists supposedly pursuing profit above all else and manipulating people to purchase their goods and services by leveraging psychological techniques (i.e. subliminal messaging) and customer information from Big Data as applied through Artificial Intelligence.

Although they identify a part of the problem here, however, they fail to analyze it to fully understand the real underlying causes thereof, hence the superficial explanations and the whimsical “solutions” they insist will magically fix everything. The same underlying problems have also been described by many other ideological groups. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche warned in 1882 that “God is dead” and that “we have killed him”, as a creeping nihilism lurked its way into public consciousness through the secularization following the Enlightenment. Nihilism can take many forms, but in essence it refers to a loosely organized belief system rationalizing one’s lack of meaning and direction in life (fellow blogger Garrett has an excellent article series going further in-depth on the philosophy and history thereof). Someone unconsciously or subconsciously acting in accordance with a nihilist belief system will indeed tend to be numb and just follow along with the system and surroundings they’ve been placed into, thus more easily getting manipulated and exploited by the powerful to their advantage. But then again, this describes only the proximate cause of the problem, whereas the ultimate cause that we ought to better understand is why and how the culture has been so infused with nihilism in the first place.

The truth is that the economic system doesn’t affect the culture and people’s underlying motivations and interests anywhere near as much as many purport it to, but rather just determine the extent to and the means by which they’re able to pursue them. In a free market, there is no guarantee that people necessarily will be charitable or compassionate, but rather just that they will act in accordance with their own values and desires insofar as it doesn’t violate anyone else’s person or property. The Socialists insist, however, that people should place the interests of the collective before their own (though that ironically enough just tends to be a projection of their own interests onto that of the collective), to be decided by a central planning committee (I’ve delineated the fallacies and impracticality of the Anarcho-Communist doctrine in a previous article), and that if people violate that decree they will be forced to act against their own interests.

This suggestion by the Socialists, however, implies that they – or the people who’d be in power in this system – would supposedly know better than the individuals themselves how to act and live out their lives. For someone purporting to be an ardent opponent of the greed and selfishness supposedly spurred by the capitalist order, indulging in such a level of selfishly imposing one’s will on others is hypocritical at best, and evil at worst. The 18th century French free-market philosopher Claude Frédéric Bastiat well illustrated the double standard involved when rhetorically asking:

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?

Additionally, no action can legitimately be classified as moral or immoral unless it is made through the individual’s free will based on his own values and interests. Threatening or coercing someone to act against their interests restricts their free will and limits the subject’s behavior in line with what he’s willing to do to avoid harm, and though the extent of this can vary in degree, it warrants at least a more nuanced moral analysis of the situation (the one initiating aggression of his own accord being the main actor deserving scrutiny). As Murray Rothbard wrote, “There can be no truly moral choice unless that choice is made in freedom,” because only then will your act be the product of your thoughts and will, and can be judged accordingly (I explained this in more detail in my article Why is Liberty the Noblest of All Values?). The utilitarian claim that an action is moral solely on the basis of the ultimate consequences thereof thus provides the aggressor a rationalization for his destructive behavior, showing that we ought to focus first and foremost on the morality of the action in itself (deontological ethics) when analyzing such a situation.

No matter what economic system people end up finding themselves in, they will always seek to primarily satisfy their own interests. What’s set in place through the economic system is the incentives attracting them to take advantage of particular means to get what they seek and desire, whereas their interests have been formed by the impressions and experiences they’ve hitherto gone through (usually much influenced by the culture they’ve grown up in), as well as their later reflections thereof. The problem then, lies not with the free market, but rather with what people choose to spend their time and money on in that system. One cannot force people to become good; only motivate and encourage them to do so. “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean,” as J.W. Goethe asserted. You can train your logic and your eloquence to become more persuasive in advising how you think others should spend their time, energy, and money. You can live as an example, and show the world that your way of doing things seem to be the best available. But utilizing threats, intimidation, and coercion to get your will through, on the other hand, only leaves the people around you with the impression that you’re insecure and arrogant, and that you really can’t logically defend your position.

Consumerism – when rightly understood as an outgrowth of nihilism – can, for instance, be argued to be a destructive societal tendency as it in the long run is keeping the populace unhappy yet numb enough to remain subjugated. One’s happiness is thereby restricted to the external pursuit of something the person does not yet have as property or a part of his/her being, rather than uncovering the wonderment and meaning in all that one already has. External pursuit of happiness like that tends ultimately to be unsustainable, for only once you look inside and introspect may you realize you already do have most, if not all, that you need to be happy. “Happiness is like a butterfly,” Henry D. Thoreau explained, for “the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” If consumerism and nihilism are to be uprooted from public consciousness, there needs to be a replacement for a philosophy that they can rather live their lives in accordance with. This can be done, for instance, by studying and internalizing doctrines like Stoicism and Existentialism, allowing you to better understand yourself and what you really want, and perhaps also if there are any discrepancies between that and what you “should” want, depending on your values (I’ve argued more in-depth in defense of studying philosophy in my article Why Study Philosophy?).

The logical conclusion many tend to end up with after having set out on a journey for growth and self-improvement is to become more of a minimalist. To enjoy the small things in life and to minimize unnecessary noise and complications that nihilism and consumerism is plagued by, as well as to stick true to one’s principles. Thoreau once wrote that “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust,” and that excellently illustrates the practicality of studying philosophy as a means of bettering one’s life in that sense. Is getting that new phone really worth paying that much money for when the one you have works perfectly fine? Are there no better things you may spend that money on, such as paying back debts, saving for education, a house, retirement, using it for investing to earn passive income on it, or donating a bit to charity? Our short-term desires are temporary and often foolishly motivated, and it is first when one begins reflecting on and understanding one’s real underlying principles and long-term desires that one can truly initiate oneself to live life to the fullest.

The free market, insofar as we have one in spite of the burdensome interventions posed by the State in our contemporary system, is far from inherently being an arena of indulging in greed and exploitation. It allows us to mutually benefit through voluntary exchanges, to let people pursue their dreams and passions, to fail and learn from experience, and to leverage one’s skills and strengths to improve society as a whole. Where the free market reigns, the responsibility falls on us to take care of ourselves and one another. Charity plays a part, but also the pursuit of profit benefits society greatly in a free market insofar as there aren’t any attempts of trickery. Adam Smith put it well in The Wealth of Nations when he explained that

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

This is not to say that humans are necessarily selfish to their core, however, for in his preceding, albeit unfortunately far more neglected, book Theory of Moral Sentiments he begun by stating that

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner.

This, in practice, can take the form of donating to charity and taking care of those in need, and by getting better in touch with one’s nature and principles, one can begin truly leveraging one’s abilities and strength both for the benefit of oneself and others. The freer the people are to act in accordance with their own interests, the larger the responsibility people will have to take on. But fret not! For with the right attitude, this would not be a burden, but rather an endowment that can continually push us to become stronger and better – both for ourselves and the people we know and love. And it is by in aligning with that exact mindset that one can truly begin achieving true meaning and happiness: living freely both physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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