Individualism is the doctrine that that each human being is sovereign over his own life – that each individual is autonomous in themselves – and as such, no person can become a means to the ends of others. Nothing may be forced on an autonomous individual against his will; if something is desired of you it may only be obtained by your voluntary consent – which you are fully entitled to withhold.
Since individual autonomy is an extension of each person’s ability to think and to choose – that is, of an individual's rational faculty – the upholding of autonomy entails the upholding of reason, and its application in reality. It should go without saying that such an individual recognises this same principle in others.
In establishing what individualism is, it is important to understand very clearly what it is not.
Individualism is not is Subjectivism – doing or thinking what you feel like just because you feel like it. Subjectivism -- or its kissing cousin Hedonism -- is not the hallmark of an individualist, even if you believe as Nietzsche did that your feelings are of a superior strain and entitle you to ride roughshod over others. The individualist lives by his mind, and since he claims the right to do that for himself he respects that same right in others. (The individualist understands that we are not guaranteed success in all our freely-chosen actions: Each of us is free to make our own mistakes; the individualist respects that freedom, but will occasionally exercise the freedom to judge the freely-chosen actions of others.)
Neither is an individualist a Non-conformist simply for the sake of non-conformity (eg., Howard Stern, Madonna, Marilyn Manson et al). "Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist" declared Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not so. Such a person’s behaviour is still driven by others: “Whatever they do, I’ll do the opposite” says the non-conformist. He wants to shock and outrage – others. He wants to be seen as an 'individual' -- as compared to others. Such a person, however well-tattooed and however weighed down with piercings, is still dependent on the judgement of others. A genuinely independent person conforms to the judgement of his own mind. (He does just occasionally however accept advice, and read maps. Being an individualist does not mean being an island.)
Nor is it sufficient to say that each person is an end to himself, while preaching that he must purge his behaviour of every last vestige of personal inclination and do his 'Duty' (we might at this point hear the heels-clicked-together of Immanuel Kant and his Categorical Imperative, or the carved-in-stone moralising of the religious). An individualist pursues those actions he has voluntarily chosen as being in his rational self-interest (about which he may of course be quite wrong), not those imposed upon him as his 'duty'. As PJ O'Rourke put it so well, "There is only one basic right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." (He is also of course quite entitled to reap all benefits should he be proved correct.)
Nor will it do to say, “We should permit the individual to act on his own judgement, since that way, he delivers the best results for society” (see for example John Stuart Mill, et al). Individualists are not Utilitarians. Such a maxim rests on the assumption that society owns the individual, not that he owns himself, and that the degree of latitude he is 'permitted' may be varied at society’s discretion (witness Mill’s many compromises with statism). Individuals acting together voluntarily in their own self-interest are in fact the only way to deliver "the best results for society" -- but this is a consequence, not a primary justification. As Adam Smith said, "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."
In summary then, libertarians -- and certainly this libertarian -- would agree with the summary given of the doctrine by Ayn Rand: “Individualism holds that a civilised society, or any form of association, co-operation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights – and that a group as such has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.”
This is part of a continuing series explaining the concepts and terms used by libertarians, originally published in The Free Radical in 1993. The 'Introduction' to the series is here.