In a recent sermon delivered by Harvey C. Mansfield at Appleton Chapel in Memorial Church, Harvard University, we are reminded of the admonition of St. Thomas Aquinas that charity is the chief of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity and that charity is the common form of all the virtues because all depend on the love of God. But people have developed different perspectives on the real world implementation of charity and how it should be properly manifested in this life.
Two recent books have surveyed the various attitudes of Americans as they pertain to charitable giving and related sentiments and instincts and have produced instructive results. One of them, to which Mansfield alludes in his sermon, is by economist (and registered independent) Arthur C. Brooks who, in his book Who Really Cares?, notes first of all that no developed country approaches American giving. Based on the most recent data, Americans gave, per capita, amounts ranging from 3.5 to 14 times as much as citizens of other nations, and were more likely to volunteer their time by percentages ranging from 15 to 32. However, the most interesting aspect of his research shows that, by significant margins, self-described “conservatives” in America are more likely to give than self-described “liberals”. In the year 2000, households headed by a conservative gave, on average, 30% more dollars to charity than households headed by a liberal, and this difference is not a factor of income differential; in fact, the liberal families in the survey earned an average of 6% more than the conservative families. And the trend was consistent in areas other than cash contributions. For example, in the Brooks survey, conservative Americans were much more likely to donate blood and did so more often than liberals.
The other recent survey is the subject of a new book by Peter Schweizer, Makers and Takers, the subtitle of which tells it all: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less, and Even Hug Their Children More Than Liberals. The survey results highlighted here are obviously more comprehensive, but here are a few findings that have a direct bearing on charitable attitudes: 71% of conservatives say they have an obligation to care for a seriously injured spouse or parent, compared with 46% of liberals; 55% of conservatives say they would endure all things for the one they love, compared to 26% of liberals; liberals are much more likely to say that money is more important to them; they are 2.5 times more likely to be resentful of the success of others and 50% more likely to be jealous of the good fortune of others; and conservatives are much more likely to donate money and time to charitable causes.
Interestingly, while the single biggest determinant of one’s altruism is religion, the significant differences outlined in these surveys are not simply a function of religious people’s charitable giving to their churches. People of faith are clearly more charitable with secular causes as well and this is demonstrated by the Brooks surveys in particular, which found that religious people were 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give money to explicity non-religious charities and 21 points more likely to volunteer their time. And the value of the average religious household’s gifts to non-religious charities was 14% higher after correcting for income differences.
In short, it is clear that there are undeniably significant charitable attitudes prevalent as one moves along the American political spectrum. What gives? Mansfield believes that the reason liberals are less personally charitable is that they believe in justice more than generosity, because the latter is “hit-or-miss”, whereas justice covers everyone, at least in principle. In other words, to make sure that everyone is covered they are willing to sacrifice the voluntary aspect of virtue and go for taxes that compel everyone to be charitable. To me, the most telling survey result was the Brooks finding that people who reject the idea that”government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition! This is the lesson learned — to most liberals, particularly those in public office, the definition of charity is redistribution funded through government programs with other peoples’ money.