Charitable nation

Posted: Jan 03, 2007 12:00 AM
Charitable nation

Americans are better people than Europeans. Hold on, it gets better. Religious Americans are better than non-religious Americans. And religious Americans tend to be politically conservative.

This admittedly tendentious rendering of reality is how some on the right are interpreting "Who Really Cares?" by Arthur Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. Brooks doesn't really deal with what makes one person "better" or "worse" than any other. But it's fair to say that how much a person gives - of either his money or time - is usually considered an important indicator of character. It turns out that by this yardstick alone, my little talk-radio-ready summary is basically correct.

The further to the left you are - particularly to the secular left - the less likely you are to donate your time or money to charity. Imagine two demographically identical people, except that Joe goes to church regularly and rejects the idea that the government should redistribute wealth to lessen inequality, while Sam never goes to church and favors state-driven income redistribution. Brooks says the data indicate that not only is Joe Churchgoer nearly twice as likely as Sam Secularist to give money to charities in a given year, he will also give 100 times more money per year to charities (and 50 times more to non-religious ones).

Because Brooks is using vast pools of data, and because he's talking about averages rather than individuals, there is no end of exceptions to prove the rule. No doubt there are pious Scrooges and Santa-like atheists. But, basically, if you are religiously observant, a married parent and skeptical toward the role of government, you are much more likely to be generous with your time and money.

You're also more likely to be a political conservative, but it's a mistake to find causation in that correlation. Certain types of people are likely to be conservative and to be charitable. But being a conservative doesn't make you charitable.

Still, the partisan ammo is what has interested the Bill O'Reilly types the most - and it is interesting, since it so directly contradicts the generations-old propaganda of the left, which depicts the rich right as stingy, unfeeling and selfish. "Blue state" America spends a lot of time talking about how much more caring and enlightened it is. But that's with somebody else's money. When it's their own money, that's a different story.

What's vastly more interesting is what Brooks' data says about America. Our charitableness is a distinct cultural artifact. America's simply a lot more generous than most other countries. Not counting government aid, we give, per capita, three and half times more than the French, seven times more than Germans and 14 times more than the Italians.

This is not merely a byproduct of our wealth. In fact, one of the most interesting observations of the book is that the most giving Americans, measured as a share of their income, are the working poor. The rich come second and the middle class last.

The difference lies in European attitudes toward God and state. Europeans have largely turned their backs on the former and consider the latter the answer to everything.

Europeans defend their comparative stinginess by claiming that their outsized welfare states, and the taxes they pay into them, amount to charity. Brooks demolishes these and related assertions. But the most basic response is this: Compelling payment by others through high taxes isn't charity.

What's interesting to me is that Europeans are uncharitable for the same reason liberal secularists tend to be. In America, as in Europe, the more you think the state should provide for everything, the less you think anybody else should provide anything. As Ralph Nader said in 2000, "A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity." In other words, a "just" society is one where, because the state helps everyone, people aren't obliged to help anyone.

Brooks, a cautious social scientist, doesn't tie all this together as much as he could. Europe's transformation into what he and others call a "post-Christian" civilization has its roots in the turn-of-the-century switch from religion to statism, when "God will provide" was replaced with "the state will." This vision is a European import, and in many respects the history of liberalism in America is the history of Europeanization. Woodrow Wilson's war socialism, FDR's New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and Bill Clinton's Third Way were all proselytized as attempts to make America more like "enlightened" Europe.

Maybe such a transformation would make America a better place. But the data suggests it wouldn't make Americans better people.