Note: This is an old post of mine, long since deleted. I’m reposting it in response to this comment by Kyle Cupp.
Is Libertarianism individualistic? No doubt for many the answer to this question would seem to be “um, yeah, obviously.” But like most ‘isms’ the terms libertarianism and individualism can be used in several different senses. If by libertarianism one means something like “the views of Ayn Rand” and by individualism one means something like “the views of Ayn Rand” then the answer will be um, yeah, obviously. For purposes of this post, however, I’ll define libertarianism as the belief that government ought ideally to be limited to the core functions of the so-called “nightwatchman state,” e.g. policing, national defense, the courts, etc. As for individualism, I’ll just quote Wikipedia:
Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that stresses independence and self-reliance. Individualists promote the exercise of one’s goals and desires, while opposing most external interference upon one’s choices, whether by society, or any other group or institution.
Certainly there are many libertarians in the above sense who are also individualists. Be that as it may, there is, I think, no necessary connection between libertarianism and individualism so defined. Libertarianism, as I’ve defined it, is concerned only with placing limits on the state. It says nothing about the institutions of civil society, be it social norms, voluntary associations, the Church, or marriage and the family. Individualism, by contrast, does not draw a sharp distinction between limitations on individual freedom imposed by civil society and those imposed by the state. Nor is libertarianism a “moral stance” in the sense of the Wikipedia definition of individualism. Libertarianism offers a set of policy prescriptions which can be held on a variety of different grounds. One might subscribe to libertarianism because one is a committed individualist, or one might advocate it on purely practical grounds. It’s true that libertarians don’t tend to talk about civil society much (though there are exceptions). This may, in fact, partly explain its as yet limited appeal. But at the risk of repeating myself, allow me to repeat myself: there is nothing inherent in libertarianism that requires one to downplay civil society, or to view the limitations on individual action that it sometimes involves with suspicion.
Nor, it seems to me, is it the case that a libertarian society need be particularly individualistic, or for most of the populace to hold individualistic views. Singapore, for example, while hardly a libertarian paradise, comes a lot closer than most countries to enacting economic policies similar to the libertarian ideal. Yet it has done so not in the name of individualism, but in furtherance of a kind of Confucian based system of values which places a high degree of importance on community and family. Indeed, many of its more libertarian policies are billed precisely as a means of combating individualism.
Similarly, I suspect that the higher level of church attendance in the United States is one of the reasons the state is smaller here than it is in many European countries. Functions that in Europe would be carried out by the state are here carried out more so by the institutions of civil society, with the result that America is closer to the libertarian ideal than is much of Europe. One might almost say that far from being inherent in libertarianism, individualism of the sort described above is fatal to liberty, as a weaker civil society ultimately translates into a stronger state.