Social & Domestic Issues

Why Conservatives Give More to Charity

Concern and care for the poor is a staple of secular progressive thought. Conservatives—who are largely more religious—wish to keep too much of their own money, support greedy big businesses, and are not concerned with addressing the needs of the less fortunate.


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Arthur Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University and author of the new book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide—Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” has dug up information that points to a tendency among secular progressives to give less and give less often, while religious folks of all political stripes tend to make donations left and right (pun intended).

I talked with Brooks about his book, this revelation, and about charity as a whole. I also reviewed his book.

What is your definition of “charity,” and what it means, and what it doesn’t mean?

Yeah. It’s, boy, that sure was the question when I started this book. I’m very catholic, little-c—actually, big-C too, but that’s not the point, little-c catholic when it comes to charity. The reason is, I’m very sensitive about not leaving something out. People mean different things, but what all the definitions of charity have in common is a voluntary sacrifice for the good of somebody else. That’s really what it’s all about.

So, I put in everything. I put volunteering, and giving money away, and giving blood, and giving money to your no-good brother-in-law, and everything. The only thing that I insist on in this book and in all my research is that it has to be voluntary and it has to be mutually beneficial. Your volunteering to do something for the good of another person. If it’s not that, then it’s not an act of affection, which is where the word the word “charity” comes from in Latin. It’s also not love for fellow man, which is what philanthropy means in Greek.

For example, I completely rule out the idea that taxation is charity. It’s logically inconsistent. It might ultimately be mutually beneficial, because we try to provide public goods, so we tax ourselves to provide the Army, for example, but it’s not voluntary. There’s no voluntary sacrifice going on there. Now, that’s an especially strong case in America. In Europe, if you talk to the average, middle-class Norwegian they’ll say, “Oh yeah, it’s voluntary, absolutely. We vote to raise our own taxes all the time.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about public goods or a collective action thing. I’m talking about individual decisions to voluntarily help somebody else.

What is the primary impetus for an American to give? We’re more charitable than most other Western nations. What, specifically, about Americans gives them the motivation to give more than other societies?

There are four. The first is—if there’s one question I can ask you to predict your charitable giving, and I can only ask one, it’s going to be about your religious behavior. It doesn’t describe everything. It doesn’t describe all of the variance in charitable giving, but it describes a lot. And that is the main reason that some communities in American are more charitable than others, and why some countries are more charitable than others. If you compare America and Europe, the big motivating force behind American charity and European un-charity is secularism and religiosity. Americans are super-religious, and Europeans aren’t. In most European countries, less than 10% of the population regularly practices a religion.

How does this apply to nations that are perceived to be staunchly Catholic, say Italy or Spain?

Well, Spain is one of the most secular nations. Spain is a formerly Catholic country. Spain is Catholic in name only. It’s nothing more than a cultural distinction at this point. Spain has the lowest fertility rate in Europe; Spain has one of the lowest church attendance rates in Europe. Now, Ireland still has a pretty high church attendance rate, but it’s coming down really fast. They just haven’t caught up with the rest of secular Europe yet. And their demography is falling apart in the same way as the rest of Europe. Italy and Spain are the two countries with the most non-Catholic demographics that we see. That’s really shocking when you look at it. Both countries are way below population replacement, and both have extremely low church attendance rates

If one gives to causes with political implications, say, pro-life groups, does this count as charity? If so, how is that different than donating to a full-blown political campaign in order to further one’s own preferences? Or are they both charity?

In my view they are. From my point of view, someone voluntarily making a sacrifice of their resources trying to help somebody or some other cause, as far as I’m concerned, the motivations are beyond what I’m trying to look at here. The main criticism that people on the political left make of people on the political right is, “They may give a lot, but they don’t have love of man in their heart.” In other words, it stops being charity depending on your motive, and that’s just silly, it’s crazy. Charitable giving is a behavior, not a motive. It’s an identifiable behavior—somebody giving to somebody else. That’s really all I’m talking about. Whereas a motive is —let’s let God sort out the motives, let’s you and me look at the behaviors. The motives, primarily, in my view, have philosophical and theological interests. The behaviors are what we’ve got to care about in this society. We don’t get richer, we don’t get richer, we don’t get stronger communities because of people walking around with a glow for mankind in their hearts without giving.

The glow that you’re talking about, that motivation, has been perceived as a leftist thing, the motivation to focus on the interests of the poor, and those who would benefit from charity. Why haven’t those on the left stepped up and given more as taxes are going down—in the 1980s and in this decade? It looks like their vision of a large redistribution of wealth isn’t coming to pass any time soon, so why aren’t they stepping up lately and giving more?

Culture. Giving is a cultural phenomenon. Giving is not, primarily, an economic phenomenon. And, as an economist, it took me 10 years to say it, to get my courage together and actually say, “Hey, look guys. We are not the sum of our economic incentives as sentient beings.” We are all about our culture in our society. And, in fact, on the American left, there’s a cultural polarity that has come into view that runs counter to private charitable liberals. That doesn’t mean that there are no charitable liberals. There are some liberals out there that are unbelievably charitable. All it says is that there are cultural currents in America today that make it more instinctive and reflexive for conservatives to give than for liberals to give. So it’s actually harder for liberals to be charitable in America today because they’re less religious, way less religious, unbelievably less religious. They’re more reliant and enthusiastic about government. They’re more likely and positive about the government’s role in subsidizing people’s income, and they’re less likely to have nuclear families. And these things together—earning your income, being religious, traditional families, and a skepticism about the government redistributing income—these are the cultural forces that predict charity today.

You cite that secular and religious liberals have the highest levels of educations, which would place both secular and religious conservatives at the bottom half of those four groups. Why does more education correlate with less giving? Might there be a causal link?

There is [a causal link between education and giving], because people will give more when they have more education because they have a better sense of need and a better understanding of how giving improves their own lives. However, the fact that liberals have slightly more education in America today, that effect, the education effect, is swamped utterly by the more important cultural impacts. The fact that secular liberals and religious liberals tend to have pretty high education levels is mitigating the difference between these groups. So, if the education levels were the same, you’d see an even bigger chasm in charity between the groups. And, as religious conservatives in America improve their education levels, which they are, we’re going to see the divide increase unless we solve some of these problems.

Are those who advocate redistribution of wealth while giving less just waiting on government changes—tax policy, for instance—for their “giving” to take place?

Well, waiting … that’s a good question. The data suggests that they feel they have discharged their charitable duties by having a particular political opinion. That’s actually more troubling than waiting. If there were a plausible scenario under which we could become Norway, and they were pouring their resources, their time and their money and their and their energy into it, I’d say you’re ill-advised to do so because you’re really not helping people in the meantime, but I understand your motivation. So, that’s not the way it works. What predicts low giving to charity, what we find is that people … their very political view on the way government should be redistributing income, whether they are or not, is what predicts their charitable giving patterns, and that’s very troubling.

Why is American perceived by many in other nations, and even here at home, to be selfish? How has the reality of the U.S.A.’s being the most charitable organization in the world go unnoticed?

Well, charitable giving at the private level is hard to measure. Government income redistribution is easy to measure. So we just pay attention to something that’s easy to measure and we say, “Oh, look, Germany is more charitable, they spread around more income.” So when a tsunami happens, and the government of Germany gives $800 million, the government of America gives $350 million, you say, “Look, Germany’s a more charitable nation than America.” Now, behind the curtain, America privately is giving $2 billion; the Germans aren’t giving anything, relatively, and that’s where the real action is, but it’s harder to measure.

The other thing is that there’s an interest in promoting this image. And the reason that there’s an interest is that it provides a smokescreen for not giving charitably at the individual level. [Secondly], it can create an atmosphere of guilt under which we might be able to promote more redistribution policies. Essentially, what we’re saying is, people who don’t want government redistribution of wealth are selfish. And the reason we do that is [that] it gives us a tremendous weapon against people who don’t agree with our political point of view by taking that political disagreement to the pure moral level. You say, “OK, these people that don’t agree with me are evil, pure and simple.” And then you can swing that around and get all kinds of goodies. It’s like being called a racist. No one wants that.

But even on a government level, the United States funds these international organizations that Western Europeans love so much—the UN, NATO—are primarily funded by the United States.

Well, part of it has to do with how you measure it. The United States does, in fact, give way, way more money to everything, but not as a percentage of our GDP and per capita income, necessarily. When we talk about trying to alleviate international suffering, you have to take what your government gives and what people give to international charities, and remittances that Americans make to families in other countries, and things like what our universities do when they give fellowships and scholarships to people in third world countries. Add all that stuff together, and what you find out is that we eat everybody’s lunch. Not to mention, you can’t compare international giving by Americans to international giving by Danes. Because, Denmark has like, eight people in it. To give in Denmark, you’ve got to go outside your country. America’s enormous. So, for us to give to Katrina victims is like the Danes giving to sub-Saharan Africans. It’s that far away, literally, physically that far away. We can get to all kinds of human need without leaving our country. So, consequently, we can’t just talk about … what you have to do is take all of the voluntary sacrifice and mix it together. Once you do that, there’s just no comparison.

Putting morality aside for a moment, what’s the pragmatic case for charity? How does it help the American bottom line? How does it stack up to government aid such as welfare?

Charity, objectively, has a beneficial impact on the American economy. It’s good for private prosperity, it’s good for community development, and it’s good for GDP growth. That’s what the evidence says. Now, there’s a lot of work still to be done on this. There’s no last economic word on this. But, as an economist, it’s very provocative to me that there’s no evidence to the contrary, there’s no evidence to suggest that these things are not true. And, the early studies on this say, “Boy, this is really good.”

If I’m going to recommend a balanced investment portfolio to you, I’m going to say, “Make sure you’re giving a substantial amount of money away, because you’re going to get returns on this.” This is not magic; there are good psychological reasons for this. You become more prosperous through greater effectiveness through your job and meaning, and all that kind of good stuff. Communities cohere better and countries are able to take care of themselves better and govern themselves better, and all of this good stuff translates into huge economic benefits. Now, you don’t get that from welfare.

Never in this book do I go out and say that the government shouldn’t spend anything, or that individuals can take the place, entirely, of government programs. That’s beyond the scope of this book. Some people say yes, some people say no. The numbers suggest that the government has got to do certain things like provide the army and police, and that individuals are really good at charitably providing other stuff. In my view, we need a mixed economy.

The most dangerous thing is when government programs try to crowd out charity. Then, we start losing these enormous benefits of charity. Now, Arthur Okun, who was the chief economic adviser to President Johnson, talked about wealthy programs as a “leaky bucket.” You fill a bucket up, and it’s not as full when you get it to the people in need as when you fill it up. And, the reason is not just because of waste and the government. He was talking mainly about the incentives. When you tax people to redistribute the income, people work less, you get a smaller pie. We know that, that is an objective truth. When you tax people more, they work less. Consequently, when you want to redistribute money, you have less to redistribute. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means that it’s a cost of doing business. That’s the bucket with leaks. Charity is a bucket with no leaks.

When people give more, they work harder. They work more, not less. This is an amazing thing. By the time you get the bucket to the people in need, the bucket’s fuller than when you started out. That’s an extraordinary thing, and that’s what we have to keep in mind. So, it is not just that charity is good for our economy. It’s also highly complementary to all sorts of pro-social behaviors and healthy economic circumstances—things that we really, really want. We adopt a culture of un-charity at our peril.

What is the future of charity? If the tax codes change dramatically one way or the other, where do you see it going, both as an economic tool and as one of the moral bases of the nation?

I’m very bullish on charity in America. The reason is because for the last 50 years, private charity per household in real terms has increased by 190%. GDP has increased 150%. Charitable giving per household in America is going up by more than our economic growth. We often hear that we’re getting less and less generous. It’s not true; we’re getting more generous. We’re sharing our prosperity at greater rates. Now, what would happen if our cultural fundamentals turned away from the forces of charity? That’s when we’d be in trouble.

Incidentally, the reason we’re such a charitable country to our great economic and social benefit, and our public health, our life satisfaction, our ability to govern ourselves as a free people, one of the reasons is that we have rock-solid cultural fundamentals. We’re not a less religious country; we’re a more religious than we’ve been. We continue to be skeptical about [throwing government money around]. We have lower and lower uptake rates of welfare in this country since the miracle welfare reform in 1996. Welfare is radioactive for private charity, and we’ve got less and less of that stuff. We have trouble with marriage disintegration and unwanted pregnancies in this country, but we have a much higher marriage and fertility rate than any other Western country. So, our cultural fundamentals are solid. This is not becoming a secular-progressive society. Left, right, or center, it’s great news for charity.

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