The basic unit of politics: groups, or individuals?

I was listening to an interview segment on NPR today, and one of the interviewees said something that caught my attention. He was making an argument for why one shouldn’t tie the concept of sacrifice to citizenship because, he said, “Different groups, including some privileged or relatively-privileged groups, are going to feel that “we’ve made so many sacrifices”, and that fuels the politics of resentment.” The only specific example of a group that he named was tobacco farmers — an interestingly-loaded choice of an example. But that wasn’t what caught my attention. What I noticed was that all three of the people on the show — this interviewee, the other interviewee, and the show’s host — were all discussing politics as it would relate to various groups. Economic, social, ethnic, whatever category, they were thinking about politics as if the basic unit of politics were the group.

But what is a group? A collection of people, of individuals. Without the individuals that comprise it, there is no group. And any concept that applies to groups can also be applied to each individual. Thus, the reason that racial segregation was wrong was not because it relegated blacks as a group to second-class status, but because it relegated each and every black individual to second-class status. The reason why prejudice is harmful is not because it harms groups, but because it harms individuals, judging them not fairly on their own merits but unfairly on the (perceived) merits of their group.

Groups are easier to talk about, certainly. It’s much easier to say, “Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, whites went for Bush by a strong majority, and the Hispanic vote leaned slightly towards Kerry”, than it would be to interview all the individual voters and find out why they voted the way they did. (Although exit polls help). And there is quite a bit of utility in talking about groups that way — blacks do, as a group, vote consistently for Democrats rather than Republicans. But do all the members of the group behave that way? Absolutely not — even among groups that are close to uniform (for instance, the black vote in the 2004 elections) there is still a significant number who buck the trend. Pick ten black people at random, and chances are you’ll find one who voted for Bush.

There’s a point there: groups are not the be-all and end-all of political thought, because there are always exceptions to any group classification. And there larger the group, the more exceptions you’ll find. If you only think about politics in terms of groups, you’ll be in danger of forgetting those exceptions, which can lead to policies that make sense for groups but make no sense for individuals.

Let’s illustrate this with a current, very controversial, example: monetary reparations for slavery. The idea is that non-black Americans, as a group, are seen as carrying some responsibility for slavery that they, as individuals, never participated in — and (reparations advocates suggest) should therefore give monetary compensation to black Americans as a group, whether or not any of those black Americans as individuals were enslaved or were the descendants of slaves. (A strong case can be made for reparations to the descendants of slavery, even on an individual basis: if their ancestors had had a chance to earn money for their work, the family inheritance would have been much larger and the descendants would have been better off financially).

As you can see from the way I wrote the above paragraph, reparations makes sense when you look at it from a group perspective — black Americans were oppressed, therefore black Americans should be compensated. But when you start to look at it from an individual perspective, suddenly it gets a lot more complicated, because of all the exceptions. Indeed, most of the arguments against reparations that I’ve read are written from an individual perspective, asking the question, “OK, so who gets paid, who has to pay, and please explain to me why they, as individuals, should be in those categories?”

Thinking in terms of groups is a useful tool, but it should never be forgotten that the basic unit of politics is not the group, it’s the individual. Anyone who forgets that is in danger of advocating policies that appear to do justice on a group level, but end up doing great injustice to individuals.