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Are Conservatives More Generous? [UPDATE]

A while back, we discussed Arthur Brooks' book, Who Really Cares?, in which Brooks claims to have found an increased tendency among "conservatives" (compared to "liberals") to donate money to charities of all sorts and to volunteer at higher rates as well. After offering some preliminary thoughts based on second-hand accounts of the book, I promised to read the book and post some thoughts. I'm working on a full review of the book, and so I don't want to spoil too much. But my read did answer a few of the questions I had based on the news accounts of the book's findings.

First, what do the numbers look like for religious liberals? Here's what Brooks says on page 50:

"Religious liberals bear a resemblance to religious conservatives in their giving habits. They are almost as likely to give (91%), but give away about 10% less money than religious conservatives each year. On both these measures, they greatly exceed population averages. They are about as likely to give to secular causes as religious conservatives. Two-thirds volunteer each year. They are a bit less likely than religious conservatives to volunteer for religious causes, and a bit more likely to volunteer for nonreligious causes."

Second, what does he say about secular conservatives?

"Like secular liberals, secular conservatives are not civically involved, and when it comes to giving and volunteering, secular conservatives are the least charitable group of the four. . . . Secular conservatives behave less charitably than others in informal ways. For example, they are less likely than average to let someone in front of them in a line, to give up a seat on the bus, to give a stranger directions, and to help a homeless person."

Third, does he take into account the differential spatial distribution for liberals and conservatives to account for different costs of living and tax burdens? Not that I could tell, and this may go some length towards explaining the differences between religious conservatives and religious liberals. He also rules out any consideration of taxation and government spending as an expression of generosity towards the poor for reasons I find dubious, but that he explains at length. I'll save this discussion for the book review.

So, the giving habits of religious liberals are pretty much the same as those of religious conservatives (maybe not quite as generous, but the differences are small, and liberals tend to live in more expensive places with higher taxes). Secular conservatives, on the other hand, are less generous and less likely to volunteer than practically everyone else, though, again, secular liberals give them a run for their money. It seems like the obvious conclusion to draw here is that religion is doing all the work. But after acknowledging that religious liberals act pretty much like religious conservatives and that secular conservatives act pretty much like secular liberals when it comes to charitable behavior, and after acknowledging that religious views are by far the strongest predictor he has of charitable behavior, he frames most of his discussion in terms of the liberal-conservative divide and continues to argue throughout the book as if liberal economic positions cause people to avoid charitable behavior while conservative economic positions cause people to give to charity. Given the data he has about secular conservatives and religious liberals, this argument makes very little sense to me.

The book makes some very good points about the importance of charity as a virtue, points that resonate very nicely with Catholic thoughts on the same topic. But these observations are overshadowed, in my view, by his need to color his analysis primarily in liberal-conservative terms.  In so doing, I think Brooks needlessly misses a great opportunity to draw religious people of differing political stripes together by reminding them of the common values and priorities they share.  He also undermines his ability to make important points about the role of religion as a crucial source of the altruism and public-spiritedness that is necessary to hold societies together, especially diverse societies like our own. 

I'm not sure whether this way of framing his findings was his choice or the choice of his publisher, Basic Books. I've looked at some of Brooks's academic writings, and they are far more measured and less divisive in their tone and conclusions. Perhaps it sells many more books to say thatconservatives are more charitable than liberals than it does to say that religiouspeople are more charitable than secular people. But his own data just does not seem tosupport the former point.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



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I am not sure if Grant is aware of it but the infrequency of posts, it seems to me, is a result of the new difficulty in logging in on this blog. One has to log out, then login, then is able to post.I mentioned this before but no reaction. What do others experience?

I'll create a post on this so we can get to the bottom of it.

Why should the author care that he needlessly misses a great opportunity to draw religious people of differing political stripes together by reminding them of the common values and priorities they share? Is this the purpose of research?You have touched on why so many people, like me, distrust social scientists. How am I to judge whether what an economist tells me is valid research if he just has an agenda? You seem to assume that having an agenda is part and parcel of the process. I have yet to read the book, but I have seen Mr. Brooks interviewed three times, and he strikes me as a guy who is just trying to report his findings. First, he indicates that he was actually surprised by what he found, and he stated all three times that he found the religious practice was the best predictor of charitable giving, but he also noted that religiously active people in the US are overwhelmingly politically conservative.It is interesting that no one is disputing his data that politically conservative people give more than liberals (it should also be noted that conservatives give more time, and interestingly donate blood at much higher rates I dont see how regional differences account for this), but are instead seeking the story behind the story. That is, finding a reasonable justification for the disparity.

Sean -- did you even read my post? I don't need to refute his data. His own data refutes his (and your assertion) that "politically conservative people give more than liberals." His data seems to demonstrate only that religious people give more than secular people. Religous people, on a whole, are more conservative than liberal people, so without considering the role of religion, there is an apparent correlation, but the key data point he reports is that secular conservatives give at a lower rate than almost anyone else. If conservatism were doing the causal work you (and he) claim, secular conservatives should give at about the same rate as religious conservatives.

Eduardo,Right back at you - did you read mine? I don't make a causal connection. If I did, show me where I did? When I heard Brooks interviewed, I don't think he did either. He was just stating a fact. As I said, "he found the religious practice was the best predictor of charitable giving, but he also noted that religiously active people in the US are overwhelmingly politically conservative."You are the one looking for causality. The fact is, religious people give more than non-religious people and religious people are far more likely to be politically conservative than non-religious people. Who knows what the causality is? Does their political belief derive from their religious belief or the other way around?I think the reason for the title is that for many years popular media, some politicians, and academicians have pressed the myth of the stingy conservative. Just look at the guffaws at the very term compassionate conservative. Like many social scientists, he is challenging the "conventional wisdom." I don't think he is concluding that conservatism "causes" generosity, but that conservatives are generous.Also, as we pick at this, I think it worth noting that we aren't talking about minor differences, but substantial statistical variations among the groups.

Sean -- Fair point that YOU are not making causal claims, and apologies for my saying otherwise. But you are wrong that Brooks does not. Just one example (there are many others) appears on page 114, when he is discussing the estate tax: "People who believe the government should take part of my gift to my own child -- to use the money for purposes deemed more important by government officials -- are less likely to be givers themselves than people who oppose the tax. This prediction is based on teh fact that support for forced income redistribution suppresses private giving, and on the eivdence that charity and economic liberty are mutually reinforcing virtues." These are clearly causal claims, and they are littered throughout the book. But they are utterly unsupported by the data.

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