Before asking whether Hoppeans are individualists or not, we must define what individualism is. There are multiple claimants or claimed definitions to the term individualism, which is why discourse on the topic is so mangled. People tend to not give definitions on what they mean by individualism when they are attacking, defending, or commenting on it.
This is not simply by accident in many cases, as it is this lack of clear understanding that allows those who are wrong to appear right. Ayn Rand points out in Compromise the following inexhaustive rules:
In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.
In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.
When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.
It is rule 3 that many sides use to attack individualism broadly without having to define it. Some even parade under the banner of individualism but purposefully are obscurant to what they believe so that their beliefs cannot be criticized as they would be.
To fully describe the various types of individualism would be too long for a simple article, especially when many writers in the past have written about individualism in the past. It will thus be better suited to simply point to such works. What follows are multiple errors in defining what individualism is, from the left and the critics of pseudo-individualism.
Two Kinds of Individualism
There are two kinds of individualism that have formed in the past several hundred years. There are the British and Continental variants. The former is the individualism of John Locke and The Continental variant is a sort of rationalist individualism that tends to manifest into socialism and communism. This is best described in a chapter entitled “Two Types of Individualism” by Fredrich Hayek. It is interesting that the more broad kind of individualism used in Continental Europe leads to the most oppressive states. This is obvious from their definition of it, but individualism is such a sweet word that without rigorous study of what they mean by it, it can woo people into being egalitarians of one stripe or another. It should be clear why logical outcomes of individualism cannot lead to oppression of nearly every individual, thus we must regard Continental variants of this as a grave mistake.
Smears of Individualism
Yet another form of attacks on individualism is that of smear merchants. It is the claim that such a philosophy is that of “hedonism,” “materialism,” or some other perversion of the original writers. This is best described by Frank Chodorov. It is interesting to note that as socialists took over the word “liberal” and, along with the utilitarians, “individualist” that someone like Sargon can support the NHS and declare himself to be an individualist and be right in a sense. The NHS does help people and thus it is individualist in the utilitarian view of it. The NHS is also liberal from the more socialist aspect of it as well. The fate of liberalism at the hands of the “social liberals” is another case of words having ill-defined meaning that leads to stupefaction. Individualism has suffered the same fate such that people criticize a strawman variant or unironically believe in this strawman on a daily basis on twitter because many do not read. This lack of an education in what individualism is brings us back to point three of Ayn Rand’s quote at the beginning.
Having brought up what individualism is not and cannot be, let us define what an Austro-libertarian or Hoppeans will mean by individualism. Hoppeans are ideological followers of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, the greatest living austrian economist and philosopher of our time, thus we must be a kind of austrian and more specifically a Misesian austrian.
Methodological individualism is a claim “that social phenomena must be explained by showing how they result from individual actions, which in turn must be explained through reference to the intentional states that motivate the individual actors” (Weber, Economy and Society). More specifically, it claims that humans act and that they act rationally - that is humans act to bring about ends. These ends do not have to be rational in the colloquial sense of the words. An austrian would describe someone who is banging their head against a wall as acting rationally because they mean to bash their head against a wall repeatedly. This is often referred to as the action-theoretic explanation. This, for reasons that would take too long to go into, cannot be refuted. Attempting to refute this in an argument, whether written or oral, would itself be confirmation of this premise. Since we don’t need to deal with what you are thinking in your head but not letting others know, we can ignore any objections to this premise. This a priori true premise assumes both a causal world and free will thus these premises must be a priori true as well. By a causal world I mean that present and previous circumstances determine future conditions such that one can act to bring about a desired end. By free will, I mean the ability of one to choose which actions they take, regardless of any predisposition to do one thing or another. This means you can believe that man is fallen and predisposed to sin, but that he can also decide to resist these temptations. For those who do not know what apriori means, it means without experience. Thus an a priori truth is a truth that one knows before having experience in this world. A truth that one gets from his reason alone. Human rational action, free will, and causality are all examples of a priori truths.
Furthermore, methodological individualism is about treating collectives, such as social organizations, businesses, states, governments, and so on as groups of individuals rather than as persons in and of themselves. The plans and wills of organizations are not of the organization itself but of the people constituting it. Thus there is no reason to be against a colloquial statement that such and such business has a plan to do such and such, but when under sociological examination to clarify that it is the people in the organization that will act according to that plan within that organization. This is necessary as only individuals are agents and thus they can be the only ones acting in a social organization. Contrary to rejecting social organization, methodological individualism clarifies what social organization is. The sociological claim that organizations act in and of themselves and not the individuals inside them is one form of collectivism.
The Stanford Encyclopedia referenced earlier has the best definition of what methodological individualism is and why it must be called individualism:
… Action-theoretic explanation is central to social-scientific analysis, therefore, because without knowing why people do what they do, we do not really understand why any of the more large-scale phenomena with which they are embroiled occur.
Thus methodological individualism is a slightly misleading term, since the goal is not to privilege the individual over the collective in social-scientific explanation, but rather to privilege the action-theoretic level of explanation. This privileging of the action-theoretic level is methodological because it is imposed by the structure of interpretive social science, where the goal is to provide an understanding of social phenomena. Actions can be understood in a way that other social phenomena cannot, precisely because they are motivated by intentional states. Yet only individuals possess intentional states, and so the methodological privileging of actions entails the methodological privileging of individuals. Thus the “individualism” in methodological individualism is more a byproduct of its central theoretical commitment than a motivating factor. This is what defenders to the [sic] doctrine have tried to communicate, with greater or lesser degrees of success, by claiming that it is politically or ideologically neutral.
It is worth emphasizing the difference between methodological individualism, in Weber’s sense, and the older traditions of atomism (or unqualified individualism) in the social sciences… Methodological individualism, on the other hand, does not involve a commitment to any particular claim about the content of the intentional states that motivate individuals, and thus remains open to the possibility that human psychology may have an irreducibly social dimension. Thus one way of accentuating the difference between atomism and methodological individualism is to note that the former entails a complete reduction of sociology to psychology, whereas the latter does not.
As we saw earlier in Hayek’s work, individualism as a motivating factor is a non-starter as it is self-refuting. Thus, this kind of individualism as a byproduct individualism is the only one that is consistent with individualism once practiced. As Rothbard in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature notes, practice and theory are inextricably linked, so the practical failing of the Continental form of individualism to bring about a state of being that is not repressive to the individual is a refutation to the continental form of individualism. The theoretic failing of this more “pure” form of individualism is not pointed out by this method of analysis, but it is clearly there. This failing of that particular brand of individualism proves it is collectivism.
This distinction in the Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy between methodological individualism and atomism is necessary because of the earlier confusions expressed by Chodorov. By conflating the two, many non-liberals have been able to accuse individualists of being atomists. This is a clear misunderstanding of the method of individualism, as no austrian would seriously be an atomist as opposed to a methodological individualist. It is somewhat interesting that the author of the encyclopedia calls Menger an atomist while using a quote from a chapter rejecting the charge of atomism. The elements of an economy are the individuals that make it up.
It is interesting to note that the Encyclopedia I am, in part, using notes that many see the founding of methodological individualism in Menger. This is closer to my understanding of the origins of methodological individualism being used in sociological analysis. We are taking the method used in economics and applying it to the broader sociological field. There is nothing specific to economics that makes the basis of austrian economics not apply to broader sociological issues, so we must apply it there as well.
Having defined what individualism is, we will now discuss libertarians who use the word incorrectly.
Another form of individualism that has been very popular in libertarian circles is very different than the methodological individualism of people like Mises and Rothbard. Methodological individualism is a form of analysis, it is not prescriptive. Whereas methodological individualism doesn't rule out the influence of institutional frameworks over the individual or that institutions can form, these people claim to be methodological individualists and yet wish to do away with institutions. As noted before, this is not the purpose of methodological individualism. As many who pay attention to this website, you may already know that I am talking about the agorists and market anarchists.
Another kind of individualist is the kind that sees “racism” and “sexism” as some kind of anathema to individualism. As can be seen from analyzing methodological individualism, one can subjectively value geographical distance from or closeness to one race, not getting into romantic relationships with other races, or roles for men and women without contradicting any tenet of the method of individualism. In fact, because of the value-free nature of individualism, these preferences are necessarily in another realm of debate from individualism.
Many lolberts and critics of modern liberalism either see these types of individualism as synonymous or simply are so inundated with the Continental variant and perversions of the original individualist school such as utilitarianism that they associate that as what individualism is. This confusion between these various forms of individualism can be preyed upon to keep rationality from winning the day.
Hoppeans are, in fact, individualists. They apply methodological individualism not only to economics, but to all of human action (also known as sociology). This puts them against what most uninformed people would call individualism. They do not wish to destroy institutions and hierarchies. They do not adhere to a do-gooder philosophy. They do not see themselves as an output of their environment, but rather as their peculiar composition and their free will. This puts Hoppeans as an extreme minority among the schools of thought that would classify themselves as individualists.
This absolute minority in opinion means that it is not profitable to call yourself an individualist without being able to have a full discourse on what individualism means. Often, your interlocutor isn’t interested in having such a dialogue, but is either waiting on a sound bite to use to get dopamine from their fanbase or is trying to trap you into one of the smears discussed earlier.