In 2021, for the first time in American history, the federal government made political will and racial equity part of the doctrine of the social construction of human nature and the individual—strengthening that effort by higher education, with the eager assistance of a highly sympathetic media.1
But there remains in the larger public a strong contrary longing for an America that would continue to build upon the individual and immutable aspects of human nature, as opposed to the elite, which sees only racial identity groups. This article also highlights some of those features of human nature and shows why the Founders chose the individual rather than social construction by state political will or higher education and culture.
Along the way, I will show that current concern about white supremacy by social constructionism isn’t new and existed more than a century ago. Rather, it’s racial equity and the loss of traditional standards of achievement or merit that are new for 21st-century America.
Social Constructionism and Human Nature
In numerous articles for the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and in my book Ordering America (2010), I have shown that Western civilization and the 18th-century American Founders built upon man’s inherent human nature through which individuals, as equal citizens possessing inalienable natural rights, became regulated by limited government. Individuals also possessed a combination of innate but unequal traits and potentialities to be actualized by nurture and education and restrained by law, tradition, and religion, through which they determined their own fate.
I’ve also shown that by the early 20th century, American higher education instead adopted European (Durkheim and Hegel) theories of society and devised a new social science based on the denial of human nature and the primacy of the group mind for the individual. Progressivism added Marxian economic determinism, and education joined to complete the resulting doctrine of the social construction of human nature and the individual by culture and the state.2
Throughout the 20th century, higher education, joined increasingly by K-12 institutions, promoted the social construction of human nature and transformed the individual to cultural, and then racial, identity groups (which the Founders had considered factions). After World War II came the ‘60’s: The Civil Rights movement, followed by various currents of radical activism. Social constructionism energized other movements such as feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism, and then prioritized cultural Marxism, grievance-driven identity groups, power over achievement (an elite change identified by Stanley Rothman), and social justice.3
In the 21st century, higher education moved social constructionism still further left to include equal outcomes, Critical Race Theory, systemic racism, and Marxism—to a vaguely defined racial equity for America.
Today, the social construction of the individual now falsely blames past slavery and contemporary white privilege or supremacy for the lack of perceived racial equity. But ironically, social constructionism actually began more than a century ago for a nearly identical purpose. In the late 19th century, radical egalitarians and Social Gospel reformers tried to establish a new social order in which the immutable forces of biology—genes and unequal traits—would play no role in accounting for the behavior of individuals. Such reformers sought accordingly to challenge rule by superior white (Nordic) Individuals by refashioning social theories of mind to make classism or sexism (and, at that time, also racism) as untenable as possible.4 That agenda was continued by reformers within social constructionism, which went on to support the narcissistic self and adolescent feelings as well as allegedly oppressed identity groups.5
So, what’s new about 21st-century social constructionism beyond political will? First, it’s the unique turn to racism plus racial equity, in which, as Ibram Kendi explains it, the principle embodied in “all men are created equal” is replaced by his egalitarian racial creed, “all human groups are equal.”6 Second, for the first time, white supremacy would apply to both individual women and men. Third, in racism, existing (“white”) standards of achievement or merit—which allowed America to become the top nation in the world—are being replaced by higher education’s degraded Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) standards,7 which have been called the “hard bigotry of no expectations,” a play on an old phrase used by many.
Human Nature and the Individual
But there remains a pronounced contrary longing for an America that continues to build upon a recognition of human nature and the individual as the focus of the political order. In the Western tradition and the view of the Founders:
Man has a common human nature with universal instincts, which includes a mix of innate but unequal potentialities (faculties and abilities, virtues and vices) to be actualized through nurture from childhood by self, family, education, religion, and culture.8
Moreover, contemporary evolutionary psychology has confirmed that concept of human nature, which confutes the subjective and politically-driven ideology of social constructionism. Evolutionary psychology is a biologically informed humanism and has a better appreciation of the wondrous complexities of the human mind and intelligence, combining sciences of the mind, brain, genes, and evolution. This new science has established that there is psychological unity of an immutable human nature with universal instincts beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture, as I elaborate below. My book, Ordering America, provides greater detail of how human nature and evolutionary psychology played a role in the governing and economic features established by the American Founders.
Evolutionary Psychology and Human Nature
Evolutionary psychology has elucidated the following features of human nature, which carry major policy implications:
- Evolution falls into the social contract (not the sociological) tradition, in which man simultaneously has propensities for self-interest and consensual exchange.
- Complex adaptions, including behavioral strategies, benefit the role of the individual.
- There is an inherent primacy of the family unit and differences between the sexes.
- The partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies imply that inequality will arise even in perfectly fair economic systems and learning.
- Thus, different individual outcomes rather than equal outcomes are to be expected and normal—racial equity or group statistical disparities (rather than individual discrimination) are unnatural and contrived.
- Human groups more commonly have an ethos of reciprocity—not communal sharing—the 20th-century relativistic basis for progressivism/Marxism.
- Reciprocity has historically been the basis for cooperation and mutual exchange of goods and labor among individuals and groups. The rendering of a service creates a moral obligation to be discharged if the recipients are to maintain their self-respect and the respect of others.
- Humans have a deep-seated capacity for envy; they are envious zero-sum thinkers.
- Humans have a need for recognition or esteem from others.
- A commercial republic and market economy based on private property and a voluntary beneficial exchange—or reciprocity—provides an outlet for not only material fulfillment, but also the satisfaction of envy and esteemfrom others (not through race).
- Human nature was forged in competition; the drive for human dominance is universal. Human nature is hierarchical: humans form hierarchies of dominance. (Power, not race.)
- Powerful hierarchies are vulnerable to domination by overweening visionaries and autocrats.
- From Pascal in Pensees, “Man is neither angel nor brute. And the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel, acts the brute.”9 From such insights came the limits on power incorporated in our Constitution and form of government.
- Prevalent in human nature are defense mechanisms, self-serving biases, and cognitive dissonance reduction, by which people deceive themselves about their autonomy, wisdom, and integrity. Biases of the moral sense make humans susceptible to a taboo mentality (e.g., our elites).
- Human nature is coalitional or tribal, a group trait that defines and that has come to dominate modern life—the effect of politics.
The above findings were anticipated by the Founders, and were the basis for the U. S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.10
Moreover, capitalism became America’s economic system and provides human nature the complementary outlet it needs in the private sector to thrive, which Marxism and racial equity oppose. We can thank Adam Smith that capitalism furnishes humans with the opportunity to exercise their dominance and hierarchy, earn esteem, satisfy envy, and practice reciprocity, consensual exchange, and self-interest—all while producing for the common good within the private sector.
America at the founding also reflected a mainly Anglo-Scottish culture based on its immigrant population. The first U. S. Census of 1793 showed that the black population of northern states was about 3.4%—and remained below 5% until the 1950s.11 It was this largely British culture that created and led the founding described above and that subsequently became a magnet for immigrants from across the globe over the 19th and 20th centuries. Their standards of achievement or merit became the highest in the industrialized world.
For more than a century, social reformers, informed by higher education’s denial of the existence of human nature and support for designated identity groups, have sought to overthrow the successful basis for the founding of America and its capitalist economy by the social construction of human nature and the individual by culture. Over the 20th century, that effort mostly succeeded.
For the 21th century, state political will and racial equity have been added. The state rules the individual. Racism replaces equality. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) replace historic standards of achievement or merit.
This time, higher education and social constructionism seek to overcome fundamental aspects of human nature—and change the character of the nation. This article also shows the very different alternative that freedom could still make available.
1 The White House, “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” 20 January 2021. Christine Rosen, “All Things Politicized,” Commentary, September 2021.
2 William H. Young, “The Unconscious and Determinism,” National Association of Scholars, 27 January 2017.
3 William H. Young, Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (Indianapolis: Xlibris, 2010), 410- 28. William H. Young, “Academic Social Science and the Group,” National Association of Scholars, 28 July 2015.
4 Young, Ordering America, 369.
5 Young, Ordering America, 429-54. William H. Young, “Multiculturalism and Western Civilization,” 25 August 2011; “Reciprocity and Western Civilization,” 29 September 2011; Western Versus Modern Thought: “Self and Social Character,” 17 February 2017; “Adolesence Versus Adulthood,” 27 March 2017; “Feelings Versus Reality,” 8 May 2017; “Cultural Marxism and Gender Feminism,” 10 July 2017; “Postmodern Subjectivism,” 3 July 2017; “Cultural Determinism,” 30 August 2017; and “Power Versus Achievement,” 8 October 2017, “Relativism Versus Virtue,” 27 November 2017, National Association of Scholars.
6 Ibram X. Kendi, quoted by William Voegeli in “Thomas Sowell’s Inconvenient Truths,” Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2018.
7 Kenin M. Spivak, “The Hard Bigotry of No Expectations: Parts I and II,” Minding the Campus, 30 August 2021 and 7 September 2021. Charles Murray, Facing Reality: Two Truths About America (New York: Encounter Books, 2021).
8 Young, Ordering America, 465-67.
9 Blaise Pascal, Pensees in “Great Books of the Western World,” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
10 Young, Ordering America, 465-94.
11 “1790 American Census,” “Northeastern in United States,” “Southeastern United States,” Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.com, 19 February 2021. Matt Rosenberg, “U. S. Population Throughout History,” ThoughtCo., 13 December 2019.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).