That's the question Steve Horwitz posed in his recent article for Future of Freedom Foundation (FFF).
A young libertarian recently told me that, as an individualist, he thinks it strange that people identify with a religious or ethnic group as “part of their roots or culture.” For this young man, individualism apparently means rejecting all sorts of possible (voluntary) connections to others that might suggest that group identity is equal to, or even more important than, individual identity. This sort of individualism, which is found too frequently among libertarians, misunderstands the ways in which libertarianism is and is not “individualistic.”
There are three ways that the words “individualist” or “individualism” might be used to describe libertarians. Two of them have some accuracy, but the third, which is the one raised above, does not.
One sense in which libertarians are individualists is this: When we analyze social phenomena, we assume that only individuals choose. Therefore, understanding even highly social institutions like the market begins, although it does not end, with individual human action. The theory of spontaneous order explains that many social institutions are the “products of human action but not human design.” That is, they start with individual actions, but those actions produce outcomes that no individual or group of individuals intended. Libertarians recognize that those actions create something greater than the sum of their parts.
A second sense in which libertarians are individualists is that we believe the individual is the meaningful political unit, because only individuals have rights and all individuals should be equal before the law. Notice that this does not mean that all individuals have equal talents or abilities; it is rather a statement about the moral standing of individuals. Individuals are the relevant moral unit, and they are equal in terms of their moral standing.