Free-Market Believers Give the Most
By Beth Cody, Writers’ Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The holiday season is a time for giving – to family, friends and those who are less fortunate than we are. Charitable giving is at an all-time high – almost a third of all donations are made in December. ‘Tis the season for bell-ringers in front of Hy-Vee.

Therefore Arthur Brooks’ new book about charity, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatives,” is timely.

The book details how and why Americans donate. We are the most generous people in the world, despite accusations to the contrary: 75% of American families (and fully 60% of low-income families) make charitable donations, about $250 billion a year (a third to religious organizations and the rest for secular causes), and half of families volunteer their time.

Controversially, Brooks shows that it is self-identified “conservatives” who are more likely to give. This finding, based on data from several large surveys, is surprising in that “liberals” usually consider themselves to be the caring part of our society, while “conservatives” are characterized as hard-hearted greed-mongers.

But upon inspection, it is not being “conservative” that leads to generosity. Rather, it is due to two factors correlated with being “conservative” which influence giving: strong religious beliefs and belief in individual (not government) responsibility.

The first factor is pretty straightforward: religions exhort followers to practice charity. But the second factor is more interesting: Belief in individual responsibility means believing that it is right to rely on ourselves, our families and friends, and the free market (including voluntary charities) to solve problems.

The statistics show a correlation between charitable contributions and attitudes toward government redistributive (tax the rich, give to the poor) policies. People who agree that “the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” are less likely to donate and give only a quarter as much as those who disagree (and between those who “strongly” agree and disagree, the difference is twelve-fold). Even controlling for income, religion and other factors doesn’t erase this tendency: the redistributionist is still ten percentage points less likely to donate, and will give $263 less per year on average.

Free-market believers, especially libertarians, are often accused of being selfish, but in fact the opposite is true. Instead, it is proponents of government redistribution who apparently feel that their support for such policies is an adequate substitute for charitable giving. They are only generous with other people’s money – but not so “liberal” with their own funds.

And some of the hard-left (those who advocate near-socialist punishment of the successful) actually believe that charity is wrong. They think that charitable giving only serves to aggrandize the rich (even though the poor give too) and is more degrading to the needy than government welfare. (They apparently feel that it is less degrading to forcibly take money from a minority group and tell others that they are “entitled” to it.)

These people want to stamp out private charity entirely and replace it with government welfare programs, and they have succeeded in part. Economists have shown that government programs displace private efforts – a dollar of government money “crowds out” nearly fifty cents of private giving. How much more would we give if the federal government wasn’t squandering a trillion dollars of our tax money on failed welfare programs each year?

Privately-run charities do a better job than government programs because they have lower administrative costs – twenty-five cents of every dollar vs. seventy-five cents for government programs. This means that private charities can help three times as many people for the same amount of money (and shows that voluntary charities alone are sufficient to help the needy). They also have less fraud and corruption, because private charities are dependent upon voluntary donations, and inefficiency and corruption scandals threaten the organization’s existence.

In short, private charities work because they are part of the free market, and the free market is the only effective way to get anything done. This is the great truth of our age, and should be embraced for the blessing that it is. It’s time to spend our money helping the needy, not six-figure government administrators.

If you really want to help others, there is still time to donate your own money this year. A good place to start is outside Hy-Vee.