When it comes to matters of capitalism and freedom, Nietzsche was inconsistent. Like supporters of the free market, Nietzsche sought to maximize the creative output of individuals and privilege the individual self-interest that ultimately leads to benefits for all. And yet, he championed aristocracy and oppression as a means to achieve individual greatness. Let’s see what Nietzsche got right and where he went wrong from a libertarian perspective.
Nietzsche would love “Creative Destruction.”
The importance of having an arena of conflict in which the individual can test his mettle, struggle, and create cannot be overstated for Nietzsche. After all, this is the guy who first declared, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” In this respect, the free market seems like an ideal proving ground and opportunity for creativity and, as Nietzsche puts it, “self-mastery.”
For example, we may love the guy who makes buggy whips and who has devoted his life to perfecting his craft. But, thanks to what the economist Joseph Schumpeter calls—in über-Nietzschean terms—“creative destruction,” with the rise of the automobile there is practically no more need for buggy whips. The artisan who made them will have to do something else. Every entrepreneur, no matter how successful, takes the chance that her product will become outmoded or obsolete.
Nietzsche was skeptical of the State.
Nietzsche was also suspicious of political entities. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the prophet Zarathustra, sees the modern state in which all melt into one as the ruin of mankind and calls the state “the new idol.” We bow down before the wishes of the state and lose our identity. The modern state is depicted as the great liar, the entity that seduces us and trains us for obedience.
As Zarathustra says,
“The state tells lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies—and whatever it has it has stolen…State I call it where all drink poison, the good and the wicked; state, where all lose themselves, the good and the wicked; state, where the slow suicide of all is called ‘life.’”
Hyperbolic words, but many libertarians could agree with their spirit. Zarathustra is not all doom and gloom though. He offers hope and instructs us thus: “Where the state ends—look there, my brothers! Do you not see it, the rainbow and the bridges of the overman?”
Nietzsche the radical Individualist?
In the figure of the “overman” or Übermensch, Nietzsche champions an individualism predicated on the creation of values in the absence or “death” of God, and he privileges the conditions under which the overman, can arise. This sounds, at first, like Nietzsche is a “minarchist” or an anarchist. He emphasizes the individual rather than the societal, and he has no detailed plans for a political order or ideal society. Rather, Nietzsche’s ideal seems to be an individual like himself, living as a wandering bohemian intellectual, a cosmopolitan perhaps. The state may be a problem—the new false god—but an ideal state is not offered as a solution.
In the realm of economics, Nietzsche opposed socialism, calling it “the tyranny of the meanest and most brainless.” But he was not enamored of capitalism either. He looked down on commercial society and did not recognize the marketplace as a domain, like art and war, that is worthy of the overman.
For Nietzsche, politics mattered as a means to the end of developing a culture that would promote human greatness. Concerned with allowing individual geniuses to arise and flourish, Nietzsche foolishly thought that oppression and aristocracy would be required:
“In order that there may be a broad, deep, and fruitful soil for the development of art, the enormous majority must, in the service of a minority, be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”
Thus, Nietzsche was far from being an advocate of the spontaneous order that characterizes the free market. This is ironic to the extent that Nietzsche was an atheist who saw that there could be order without design in the physical universe. He was also a philologist by training, and languages provide excellent examples of spontaneous orders. Usually, no single individual or wise committee creates a given language or directs its development. Artificially created languages like Esperanto do not ordinarily spread, and the efforts of groups like the French Academy are met with resistance for their stultifying conservatism. Surely, Nietzsche would have understood this, and yet he did not see and trust that spontaneous order in the economic realm would lead to great cultural productions.
Rather, Nietzsche believed that the free market would produce only philistinism, or anti-intellectualism. Zarathustra, for example, says, “All great things occur away from glory and the marketplace: the inventors of new values have always lived away from glory and the marketplace.” This is clearly mistaken. Even though the free market produces a lot of cultural junk, it also produces great art.
Nietzsche should have been a libertarian.
Let us not forget that Shakespeare wrote his plays for money, not just for personal expression. The pursuit of financial rewards is not an impediment to great art even if the system, on the whole, also leads to bad art. Indeed, Paul Cantor argues in The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture that the twenty-five greatest American films of the twentieth century are “comparable in artistic worth to a similar sampling from almost any other moment in cultural history, such as the twenty-five greatest Victorian novels or nineteenth-century Italian operas.” And this is not even to mention the television shows, novels, and plays produced by Americans in the twentieth century (and beyond).
Nietzsche was insightful concerning the value of the individual and the menace of the state, but he was misguided in thinking that the freedom of many would need to be restricted for the benefit of the few and the culture they would create.
So, was Nietzsche a libertarian? No, but he should have been.
This article is adapted from William Irwin’s The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).