Are Conservatives More Generous?

Over at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds comments on a new book purporting to show that religious conservatives are more generous than secular liberals because they donate more to charities. Reynolds spins this into the following comment:

ARE CONSERVATIVES more charitable?"The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practicereligion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notionthat the government should engage in income redistribution are the mostgenerous Americans, by any measure. Conversely, secular liberals whobelieve fervently in government entitlement programs give far less tocharity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causesand are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even whengovernments don't provide them with enough money."

Apparently they're not big on paying the taxes to support those entitlement programs, either: "Bono demands more of the taxes he won't pay."

Greg Sisk, at Mirror of Justice, also touts the book's findings here. It's only a matter of time before this meme obtains CW status, like the women who get rich off welfare by having baby after baby. It's just too rhetorically useful to let truth or sound analysis get in the way.

I'm not sure what the comparison between religious conservatives andsecular liberals is supposed to prove, but it certainly doesn't establish, to quoteInstapundit (quoting beliefnet), that conservatives are more generous "by any measure." Atmost, it shows that religious conservatives are more generous donors toprivate charities than secular liberals. But, if I define "generous" to encompass, say,support against one's financial interest for social programs fundedthrough redistributive taxation, then wealthy liberals (secular orreligious), who generally support such taxes and such programs, do welland conservatives (religious or not) don't look so hot.

I have not yet read the book (though I certainly will), but before drawing any conclusions, I would be interested to know whether the "private charities"canvassed for the study include the religious conservatives own churches. I'd also like to see the magnitude of the differences, especially on some of the non-monetary measures noted in the beleifnet article, such as blood donation. Finally, I'd want to see the numbers for secular conservatives and religious liberals, since the presence of religious involvement is a potentially conflating variable in this analysis that cuts across political orientation.

To be honest,though, I'd be fairly unsurprised to see that conservatives as a whole donate more toprivate charities than liberals. Given egalitarianliberal views about the role of the state in solving certain widespreadsocial problems, one would expect liberals to favor state over privateefforts and to view at least some sorts of private charitablecontributions as wasted money.

This may be a variant on what Carl Sagan used to refer to this as the "brick in the toilet"question. He talked about one category of people, who think thatenvironmental problems should be solved by voluntary changes in individual behavior. Others, he said, think that many such problemsrequire a level of coordination that can only be accomplished throughthe state. He used water conservation as hishypothetical. People in the former group might put a brick in theirtoilet to save water with each flush but oppose centralized regulationaimed at ensuring broad-based compliance with water conservation efforts. (These are yourreligious conservatives, if you will, who will give money to privatecharities but oppose state intervention in the service of socialjustice.) On the other hand, people in the latter group, who favorstate intervention to compel water conservation but are skeptical ofthe effectiveness of voluntary action in this regard, might support (orvote for) state regulation of water consumption but, in its absence,might not bother to put the brick in their toilet because they view theaction as pointless without the broader coordination offered by stateaction. (These are your secular liberals who favor redistributivepolicies, even to their own financial disadvantage, but who, accordingto the book, are marginally stingier with their donations to charity.) Whether this story supports saying that people who put bricks in theirtoilets are the "true" environmentalists (or religious conservativesare the truly generous) and the people who do not but who vote forenvironmental interests are hypocrites strikes me as unanswerable apartfrom one's views about the substantive merits of the beliefs underlyingtheir decisions.

The relevance of Bono's behavior for all of this strikes me as toofar-fetched to be worthy of comment and bordering on (or, on secondthought, crossing well over into) the realm of intellectualdishonesty. (Not surprising for Instapundit.) Suffice it to say thatif we want to get into comparing the anecdotal evidence of hypocrisyamong prominent individuals within the ranks of our respectivepolitical movements, religious conservatives are living in a glasshouse. In the same way that meth-purchasing, male-prostitute-hiringevangelical ministers don't say anything about the bona fides ofconservative Christians, or the merits of their beliefs, Bono's taxevasion adds nothing useful to this conversation.

UPDATE: Over at Mirror of Justice, Rick Garnett takes issue with my attempt to redefine "generosity" to include willingness to pay higher taxes to support programs for the poor. He says:

After all, whether they support redistributive policies ornot, religious conservatives pay their taxes, just like "wealthyliberals"; they just give away more on top of that.

Fair point. Except that, in the states where religious conservatives predominate,taxes are lower (as are government services). In states were "wealthyliberals" live, taxes (and services) are higher. Compare, for example,South Dakota (45th highest tax burden) or Alabama (46th) or Tennessee(47th) or Oklahoma (40th) with, say, New York (2nd) or Hawaii (3rd) orRhode Island (4th). So it's not clear to me at all, to quote Rick,that "religious conservatives" pay taxes "just like 'wealthyliberals.'" As long as the increment that religious conservativesdonate to charity does not exceed the difference in tax burden between your typical red and blue state, then Ibelieve my point stands. Interestingly, nothing in the descriptions ofthe book I've seen on-line says anything about the absolute magnitude ofthe giving we're talking about. It's all about the relative rate ofgiving between religious conservatives and secular liberals. (As anaside, I've never seen any data suggesting that conservatives are morelikely to evade taxes, but, if the Bush administration's policies withrespect to IRS enforcement are any guide, there appears to be aconstituency for tax evasion among wealthy Republicans.)

UPDATE II:  Apparently, Brooks found in an October 2003 article that religiosity has a much greater impact on charitable giving and volunteering than political affiliation.  (I can't find an on-line version of the article, but you can find a shorter version of it here.)  In fact, Brooks says that intensity of political feeling matters more than what one actually believes (e.g., strongly conservative and strongly liberal give more than more wishy washy types).  If religiosity trumps politics, then this strikes me as altering some of the fundamental meaning of the book's findings.  It suggests that the most significant factor at work is religiosity and not ideology and that the comparison of religious conservatives to secular liberals is a red herring intended to stir up debate (and publicity for the book), but does not tell us much about either conservatives or liberals.  In any event, I've ordered the book from Amazon and will report back when I've had a chance to read it.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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