These are, perhaps, the most common stereotypes in our modern American political discourse: the political left is compassionate and charitable toward the less fortunate, but the political right is oblivious to suffering. As I have already confessed, the stereotype once characterized my own beliefs. If you had asked me a few years ago to sum up the character of American conservatives, I would have said they were hard-headed pragmatists who were willing to throw your grandmother out into the snow to preserve some weird ideal of self-reliance. Hardworking, perhaps – but not generous. In contrast, I would have told you that even though some liberal sentiments and policies were ill-conceived, they generally emanated from a fundamental sense of compassion and charity toward others.
Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University.
The main force of the book is twofold: demonstrating that in refutation of the stereotype, conservatives are much more generous than liberals; and discovering why is this? From the introduction through the entire first chapter, assertions leap off every page, begging to be shouted from the housetops. The common myth has it backwards. Conservatives give more by any measure: give more money to both religious and secular causes; give more time, give more blood, give more informal gifts. This is not because they have more money – they have 6% less.
My quibbles with the book are small, and I shall get them out of the way straight off. The book tells little about the 30% of moderates or centrists in the country. As Brooks is seeking to discover stark differences, this is hardly surprising. Social scientists seek trends in the data, and mixed data obscures the results. I understand that he has done this in the interests of science and clarity. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of people to leave out.
Next, most of the divide in giving is between the religious and the nonreligious. Brooks notes this in several places – once at length – but religious liberals get a bit slighted here. They are only slightly behind religious conservatives in their giving.
Thirdly, not all the differences are enormous. That the working poor are seven times more likely to give than the poor receiving government subsidies is an enormous difference that would give anyone pause. But that group A gives to X 69% of the time while group B gives only 60% is less remarkable. Over the huge data sets being considered, a 9-point difference is statistically significant. But it makes some conclusions more precarious.
Lastly, one important question is only partially answered. While it may be true that every $100 increase in government funding to a nonprofit creates a $57 decrease in private giving, and is thus less of a benefit than supposed, the non-profit would still be $43 to the good in this scenario. Brooks spends the last third of the book extolling the cumulative, multiplying, and secondary benefits of giving. While he does this convincingly enough to sell the reader on the idea that government assistance is a long-term losing proposition, he doesn’t address the short-term loss head-on.
It’s quite an amazing little book – 180 pages of lucid prose even on complex subtopics. The technical discussions are moved to the appendix for those who want to press the methodological questions, but you don’t need to understand ANOVA or regression analysis to get the idea what he’s driving at in the text. Brooks expected to find one answer and found another. When he found that religious people gave more, he thought that disparity would wash out when gifts to specifically religious causes were removed. It wasn’t. The religious people still gave more. A similar percentage of people from all religions gave – including “other” - if they actually practiced one in some measurable way.
The possible arguments explaining this away he shoots down one by one. Conservatives give less to social welfare causes and more to private educational institutions and symphony orchestras. No, the reverse is true. A small percentage of very wealthy conservatives raise the average. Conservatives give more at every income level, especially among the poor. Conservatives give money but not time. No, they volunteer more often, and for more hours when they do. They are also more likely to give blood, give to strangers, and give to friends and family. Liberals give less because they live in places where they’ve voted in more government support. Liberals give less regardless of what state they live in or what the level of government support is. Having redistributive political views seems to substitute for charity instead of encouraging it.
Brooks actually identifies a network of four value differences between liberals and conservatives that affect giving. There are more than four differences between the groups, of course, but these four, all pointing in the same direction, correlate with giving. Married people, especially those with more children, give more than single people, with or without children. People who believe it is the government’s responsibility to make incomes more equal give less. People who receive money from the government – a group that is predominantly liberal – are not only much less likely to give money to causes, they are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviors – crime, substance abuse – as well. And as we noted, religious people are more likely to be generous.
Aside: I wonder if that is also true for “corporate welfare,” that the companies that receive it are more likely to be corrupt in business practices.
People who were raised in a religious tradition give more, even if they no longer practice. They fall about halfway between the religious and nonreligious groups. People who watched their parents give and volunteer, give and volunteer themselves. Brooks contrasts American generosity with European. The same web of anti-charity values is present in Europe as in liberal America, with even more dramatic results. Church attendance in Europe is also strongly correlated with charity and volunteering – but there are far fewer church attenders. Many more Europeans believe it is the government’s responsibility to equalize income (as opposed to opportunity), with a predictable drop in charity. Married Europeans with two children give much more than their single and/or childless counterparts – but there are fewer of them there.
Much has been made of the coming demographic implosion of Europe. Births per woman are far below replacement levels, which will lead ultimately to an aging, expensive population supported by few workers. Immigration may solve that problem, but at a cultural cost that will result in the disappearance of core western values. Brooks argues that this is interrelated and a deteriorating cycle. Reliance on government to support more and more citizens and level outcomes produces a people who do not give or volunteer, have few children, and experience less prosperity. Charity is a marker of social trust and optimism – that things can be fixed, that problems can be overcome. To give is to become more prosperous, as free markets improve in efficiency as trust and social cohesion improve. To give is to become happier, as more Americans say they are than Europeans.
More dramatically, to receive from the government rather than private charity or non-profits is to become more unhappy and discouraged. Perhaps this is because the receiver is less isolated, and part of a cycle of exchange. If you receive help in need from a charitable group, you can give to that same group when you have better times. No one is going to give back to the government. The government check is anonymous, and there is no immediate loss of face. But in the long run, the loss of face is subtler, and far more thorough.
The need for government support is real, and ongoing. As I noted above, it has proved a much better solution in the short run for those in distress. But the long term costs that the self-reliance advocates keep harping on are not theoretical: Brooks maps out the data showing that the receipt of such leads to less happiness, less community involvement, less confidence, and less prosperity in the long run. Short-term rescue must be balanced against long-term destruction.
I will add my own comment here that the destruction of personality does not happen because the poor or disabled are lesser beings or less moral. Many of us would show similar “loss of character” in the same situation.