Reciprocity and Western Civilization

William H. Young

America was founded on the Western concept of human nature including reciprocity, which modern evolutionary psychology has confirmed to be a common human ethos. Over the twentieth century, academic social and political science reversed course, turning progressively from reciprocity to communal sharing as the warrant for government to redistribute wealth to provide social justice. Our nation should return to its original course—especially for the difficult economic times ahead.

Reciprocity has been a social norm throughout Western civilization—in fact, in all cultures over human history. It has been the basis for cooperation and the mutual or reciprocal exchange of goods and labor among individuals and groups. It has moral overtones: the rendering of a service creates a moral obligation that must be discharged if the recipients are to maintain their self-respect and the respect of others.

America was established as a commercial republic with a market economy based upon private property and voluntary beneficial exchange—reciprocity—a central element of Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism, shaped by the nature of man. The Founders also foresaw the human need for recognition, to be realized through individual achievement and mutual satisfaction primarily within the private sector. They deliberately avoided rewards from the state, the sphere of political power and group action.

The principle of equality of opportunity prevailed in America for about a century after the founding. That principle accepted the inequality of income and other circumstances of life as natural, and held that the individual was largely responsible to raise himself within the reciprocal economic order. But by the late-nineteenth century, industrialization, recessions, and concentrations of wealth and poverty, led to the perception that workers could no longer compete and advance themselves in a laissez-faire economy. These circumstances gave rise to a new ethic whose touchstone was equality of condition.

The Social Gospel identified industrial capitalism as the principal villain, and sought “social justice” for the poor. Government began to intervene to improve the reciprocity of employers towards workers: wage laws, reduced hours, prohibitions on child and female labor, and safer working conditions. Followers of Marxist socialism spread the idea of communal sharing of wealth produced.

Hegelian historicism and theory captured American universities and became the basis for academic political science and progressivism. Hegel subordinated human nature and the individual to the state. Capitalism was seen ipso facto as yielding unequal reciprocal recognition of the individual, which could be provided universally only through rights granted by the state. Woodrow Wilson would lament, “The truth is, we are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless.”

American social science and cultural anthropology turned toward the social construction of human nature through groups and culture. A new theory of progressive governance based on social constructionism was created to transform human nature and perfect man and society, by granting rights to social justice through redistributed wealth.

The Great Depression, with non-farm unemployment nearing 37 percent, led to widespread destitution and desperation. Even so, to justify collective action or communal sharing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt it necessary to proclaim that “the immortal Dante tells us that the sins of the warm-hearted and the sins of the cold blooded are weighed in different scales.” He acknowledged reciprocity and dismissed the idea of entitlement:

In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.

But the American ideal of reciprocity would soon succumb to communal sharing. Social science professionals were horrified that many Americans still clung to the ethic of self-help and were reluctant to acknowledge their right to public relief. “The individual,” wrote sociologist Lawrence Frank in a memorable essay, Society as the Patient (1937), “instead of seeking his own personal salvation and security, must recognize his almost complete dependence upon the group.” The first step “was to absolve the individual from guilt,” as Frank put it. The “conception of a sick society in need of treatment,” according to Frank, was far more illuminating than conceptions stressing “human volition, human autonomy, and individual responsibility.” This therapeutic sensibility gradually took hold.

In 1939, Charles E. Merriam, dean of American political scientists, affirmed the progressive view of human nature: “There is a constant trend in human affairs towards the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility.” With the New Deal, the federal government assumed a new responsibility for protecting Americans against individual economic misfortune: communal sharing.

Another momentous change in welfare, in the early 1960s, was a change in attitude—to the entitlement mentality—originated by academic social science and implemented by radical social reformers and legal advocates for Great Society programs  Larger government subsidy was now necessary so that a recipient “could at least keep his dignity.” Typical of the new theology was a monograph from Columbia University’s New York School of Social Work, Public Welfare: Time for a Change (1961). The report opposed any emphasis on personal responsibility for economic problems: there should be no penalty for able-bodied and mentally competent individuals who, for whatever reason, were unable “to hold a job, to spend their money sensibly…or otherwise rise to the challenges of social responsibility.” Personality flaws, the report suggested, had social origins, and in any event social justice required an end to scrutiny of behavior. Communal sharing replaced reciprocity altogether.

NAS has shown that the concept of communal sharing for social justice has become even more radical in contemporary schools of social work, reflecting postmodern multiculturalism. In its report The Scandal of Social Work Education (2009), NAS quotes the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education. Graduates of social work education programs are expected to demonstrate the ability to: “Understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and apply strategies of advocacy and social change that advance social and economic justice.” “Programs provide content related to implementing strategies to combat discrimination, oppression, and economic deprivation and to promote social and economic justice” and “prepare students to advocate for nondiscriminatory social and economic systems.” Victimhood now defines entitlements by group, to be awarded through communal sharing.

“Ironically,” said Daniel Yankelovich, preeminent among American pollsters in an October 1995 speech, Reciprocity, “what started as a communal value—a moral conviction that people must not think only of themselves but also must take care of others—ends up with a preoccupation with the self, its needs and its rights.” “The welfare state,” he noted, “has reinforced the most narcissistic side of expressive individualism.“

The idea of communal sharing has created not only moral disintegration, but unsustainable entitlement expectations. To break the cycle of dependency, the nation should reinstate the Western and founding principle of reciprocity. The moral foundation should be returned to reciprocal obligations rather than need-based legal rights. In the future, if government provides a benefit, every recipient, if at all able, should be required to reciprocate, through financial sharing (such as co-payments, user fees) or in some other suitable way.

Our colleges and universities should again provide a liberal education that teaches the important role of reciprocity—in human nature and Western civilization, and in American history as the fundamental basis for our economic system. And NAS, so far to no avail, has recommended that schools of social work reexamine their missions and eliminate ideological dogma dedicated to communal sharing for oppressed groups.


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).



Image: Publicdomainpictures, Public Domain

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