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November 29, 2006

Re: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Sorry, Gina, I'm not buying what Sowell is trying to sell. It makes some intuitive sense but is it what actually happens? I don't think so.

Arthur C. Brooks, the Syracuse professor on whose work Sowell's and Stossel's pieces are based, describes what he calls a "huge charity gap" between the religious and non-religious. Among his findings are that

  • On average, religious people are far more generous than secularists with their time and money. This is not just because of giving to churches—religious people are more generous than secularists towards explicitly non-religious charities as well. They are also more generous in informal ways, such as giving money to family members, and behaving honestly.
  • The American working poor are, relative to their income, some of the most generous people in America today.
  • Among Americans with above-average incomes who do not give charitably, a majority say that they ‘don’t have enough money.’ Meanwhile, the working poor in America give a larger percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, including the middle class and rich.

Taken together the pattern is that it's religiosity (or the lack thereof), not beliefs about the size and scope of government -- as Sowell and Stossel, who are both libertarian conservatives, are trying to argue -- that best predicts how generous people will be. While you are right about the thinking of some liberals (supporting government programs plus some pocket change equals "generosity"), there's little, if anything, in Brooks's numbers to suggest that conservatives qua conservatives (i.e., secular conservatives) as distinct from conservatives who are religious, are any more generous than their secular liberal counterparts.

In fact, Brooks's findings about the generosity of the working poor vis-a-vis the giving of the middle of the middle-and-upper-middle classes, if anything, mitigates against Sowell's thesis. I doubt that you will find many small-government conservatives among even the most generous of the working poor. Certainly, there there's a smaller percentage in this group than in the less-generous middle-and-upper-middle classes.

I suspect that what unites all these varieties of generosity is the disproportionate numbers of religious folk in the respective categories. If a "religious person is 57% more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person" it's because of Matthew 25, not The Road to Serfdom. (Having worked with Christian groups that minister to the homeless, in my experience they would have appreciated some help from government but, in obedience to Christ, were prepared to act with or without such assistance.)

Ultimately, what I've read of and about Brooks's work confirms my opinion that the best and most humane thing about contemporary American conservatism is the presence of all those Christians. If you want a glimpse of what conservatism, left to its free-market fetishism, might be like without them, click here. (Warning: Not for the faint-hearted and beware of obnoxious pop-up ad.)

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