Conservatives aren’t mean? That’s what the numbers reveal, according to Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He recently took questions from NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez about his new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So, conservatives really are compassionate?
Arthur Brooks: Yes, especially when it comes to private charitable giving. This, for much of America, is the “surprising truth” in my book’s title. For a lot of folks, this contradicts an entrenched stereotype that conservatives are stingy and venal because they tend to be against a lot of government income redistribution. According to one ham-handed (but amazingly popular) campaign sign in upstate New York before the 2004 presidential election, “Bush Must Go! Human Need, Not Corporate Greed.” When we look at actual private charity, however, we see conservatives do just fine. For example, conservative-headed families in 2000 gave about 30 percent more money per year than liberal-headed families on average, while (in these data, at least), earning 6 percent less income.
This is not to commit the opposite sin and say that liberals are all selfish (we often find that liberals give more than moderates, for example). It’s just that they are conspicuously not more privately generous than conservatives, in spite of the rhetoric.
Lopez: And conservatives are more generous than liberals — is it really that simple?
Brooks: No, it’s really not a question of politics per se — it goes much deeper, to the values that lie beneath political views. My book explores four areas of our culture that lead people to give, or not: religious faith, attitudes about the government’s role in our lives, the source of one’s income, and family. These are the big drivers of giving in America today, and the biggest is religion. Religious folks give far more than secularists in every way I’ve been able to measure. For example, people who attend a house of worship every week are 25 percentage points more likely to give to charity each year than people who never go to church, and give away about four times as much money. And this is not just a question of religious people giving to their churches, as meritorious as that might be: They also give and volunteer significantly more to explicitly nonreligious causes and charities.
Obviously, religion also correlates pretty strongly with politics, which is one reason why conservatives appear to give so much.
Lopez: Are there any surprising caveats?
Brooks: Yes. Most surprising is that the least privately charitable group out there tends to be secular conservatives, who give and volunteer even less than secular liberals, and far less than religious conservatives. For example, secular conservatives are only about half as likely as religious conservatives to volunteer. The reason secularists don’t drag down the conservative charity numbers overall is that there are three times as many religious conservatives as there are secular conservatives.
Lopez: Surely that religious people are generous isn’t that surprising, right? The collection basket is just a normal part of their lives, right?
Brooks: It’s probably not surprising to NRO readers, but it is surprising to a lot of folks out there, who see religion as superstition leading people to be less accepting of others, and religious contributions as little more than glorified country club dues. Many people I know find it almost unbelievable that religious people are 21 percentage points more likely than secularists to volunteer for totally nonreligious causes; or that they are about twice as likely to donate blood.
Lopez: Why does all of this matter?
Brooks: One of the most exciting areas of social science research involves the benefits of charitable behavior to givers, their communities, and our nation. There is a growing body of evidence that giving stimulates personal prosperity, strong communities, good citizenship, and a healthier nation. In other words, charity is not just about cash for services (which theoretically, the government could provide with tax revenues). Rather, it enhances quality of life for givers and those around them.
Lopez: How will being charitable make me happy, healthy and rich?
Brooks: Charitable giving and volunteering are tremendously pleasurable. They also empower givers, making them feel less like victims, and give people a lot of meaning in their lives. I have talked to clinical psychologists who actually prescribe volunteer work to their patients, with amazing results. Studies also show that givers are admired and elevated to positions of influence and authority. It is hardly surprising, given all the evidence, that givers enjoy (on average) higher happiness and prosperity than non-givers do. In fact, my research leads me to the belief that the single best self-help strategy is to serve others.
Lopez: What does your data mean for the term “bleeding heart”?
Brooks: According to the popular lexicon, “bleeding hearts” are those who most want to raise taxes and redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Yet the data show that these folks are actually less likely to give away their own money than are those whose hearts apparently don’t bleed quite so much. For example, people who disagree that “the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” privately give away, on average, four times more money than people who agree.
And speaking of bleeding, one survey in 2002 asked people about their views on government welfare and how often they gave blood. It showed that, if everyone gave blood like “hard-hearted” opponents of government welfare spending, the nation’s blood supply would rise by about 30 percent. I won’t say which side is right about welfare spending (that’s a different question), but I will note that some may find irony in the link with private giving.
Lopez: Have you gotten grief in academia for your book?
Brooks: Not too much — at least not yet. Of course, there will be disagreement, and other scholars will probably look into my results, asking different questions and using new data. But that’s how research is supposed to take knowledge forward. In fact, one measure of the success of this book will be how it stimulates new work and discussion on charity, whether that work agrees with my findings or not.
I’ve had more pushback from some in the media, who occasionally suggest that the book is just part of a political agenda (for the record, I am a registered Independent). This often involves noting my affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute or some appearances on conservative talk radio. Nobody ever seems to point out that I am a professor at Syracuse University — hardly a hotbed of right-wingers — or that I’ve done public radio as well as Rush Limbaugh.
Lopez: Does your research pretty much guarantee that I will be getting more Christmas gifts than Arianna Huffington?
Brooks: Well, that depends on your friends! And even more, it depends on how much you give. I suspect Santa will be pretty good to Arianna Huffington this year, though.
Lopez: You’ve written too about the “fertility gap”? Are all the stingy liberal atheists going to die out?
Brooks: You mean, like Europe?
Lopez: If you could drill one fact from your research into congressional appropriators, what would it be?
Brooks: Government actions have unintended consequences for private charity. When the government subsidizes activities or regulates private behavior, it can and often does dramatically reduce charitable giving. And this has real consequences for individuals and communities. This is not an anti-government philosophy; it is an appeal to policymakers to remember that charity is an exceptional American value, and to respect it as such.
Lopez: What’s the single weirdest fact in your book?
Brooks: There are lots of strange facts about American charity. Here’s one that involves the differences between giving by the rich and poor: Americans with high incomes are more likely than poor folks to give directions to strangers on the street. In contrast, the poor are more likely to give a homeless person food or money. The practical implication of this is that, if you find yourself in a strange city and need directions, ask a rich person. If you need a sandwich, ask a poor person.
Arthur C. Brookes