Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Charitable giving: conservatives vs. liberals, religious vs. secular

Matt S. at The Only Republican in San Francisco quotes from a Scientific American column by Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society to argue that conservatives are more generous than liberals:
Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks argues in Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006) that when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of "bleeding heart liberals" and "heartless conservatives." Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. In general, religious people are more than three times more generous than secularists to all charities, 14 percent more munificent to nonreligious charities and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are "very happy" than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.
Matt says that, even though he's not religious, he admires people of faith because of their morals, their value for community, and that "they walk the talk when it comes to generosity and tolerance." Further, he concludes, "Faith, ultimately, is about optimism. Perhaps this is why I think it's worth defending."

He's got a point, but Shermer's piece is somewhat more equivocal about the evidence, observing that "Religious social capital leads to charitable generosity and group membership but does comparatively worse than secular social capital for such ills as homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies."

I don't think there's any disputing the value of community and mutual aid, nor that the secular have had a harder time promoting those values, in part due to the fact that we are fewer in number and widely dispersed. But the nonreligious have made some very dramatic philanthropic contributions which are likely to have a much greater beneficial effect than any church tithing will ever have.


Larry Moran said...

Can we addres this rationally by asking which societies achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people?

If we compare a socialist society like Sweden with a conservative capitalist society like America, which one has the fewest people who need charity? Which one is more likely to have families that are bankrupt because of serious illness? Which one has inner city ghettos where the jobless rate is >25%?

Many liberal societies have much higher tax rates in order to support their social safety net. Since these are democracies, it follows that the high tax rates are supported by the people. Should we count this as a form of "charitable giving?"

Lippard said...

Giving other people's money is not as generous as giving your own, though there's a sense in which that is a form of "charitable giving" (or at least "charitable taking").

I put up a post earlier this year reporting on a measure of the "most generous countries," which looked at contributions from wealthier nations to poorer ones, which accounted for the degree to which those contributions came as a result of tax breaks. While Norway came in at #1, the other Scandinavian countries fell below the United States. I didn't see any clear correlation to religiosity levels.

While the questions you ask are worth asking and those comparisons should be made, there are confounding factors when comparing diverse countries like the United States (where there is huge variability between states) and Sweden.

A group that has done a good job of collecting data and trying to construct useful visual ways of depicting that data is, which is based in Sweden. I put up a post about them this summer, which includes a link to a presentation they made at Google.

Einzige said...

That gapminder presentation is well worth watching all the way through.

Gadfly said...

The Volokh Conspiracy shoots down Brooks' methodology. Brooks may still be right, but the research he supports doesn't prove that.