Are Americans Selfish?
The Bond Between Faith, Philanthropy and Healthy Democracies
Date: February 16, 2005 Time: 12:00 noon Speaker(s): Arthur C. Brooks
Associate Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Nonprofit Studies Program,
Maxwell School of Public Affairs,
Host(s): Joseph Loconte
William E. Simon Fellow in
Religion and a Free Society,
The Heritage Foundation
Location: The Heritage Foundation's Lehrman Auditorium
The recent tsunami disaster in South Asia exposed much misinformation about the strength of American generosity. In truth, 70 percent of Americans give to charity each year, and do so at far higher levels than people in other developed nations: three times as much as the British, four times as much as the French, and seven times as much as the Germans. Still, a substantial minority of Americans – more than 80 million – do not support any charitable causes. Why not?
Arthur C. Brooks, Associate Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs, argues that charitable behavior is closely linked to religious practice and attitudes about the government's role in society. Americans who regularly attend houses of worship are much more likely to donate time or money – including to secular organizations – than their secularist counterparts. In addition, those who believe that government should redistribute income are far less likely to give voluntarily to help others. This helps explain why, compared to the United States, European states (mostly social democratic and secularist) see low levels of private giving. Dr. Brooks offers a stiff warning to politicians and policymakers who fail to view voluntary charity as a vital component of a healthy democracy.
Dr. Brooks, Director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at the Maxwell School, has published over 75 articles on charitable giving and nonprofit organizations, including contributions to The Public Interest, Policy Review, and the Wall Street Journal. His forthcoming book is entitled Selfishness in America.
Heritage is making a tacit case, clearly, that tax and spend liberals are not so generous as the good Christians who support Bush. The recomendation would be faith-based government initiatives, tax roll backs, and the conversion of Godless liberals to compassionate conservativism and the religion of their choice.
Working as I often do with Evangelical donors, I am struck by the consonance of their faith and works, and the depth and sincerity of their efforts to make a difference, often in their local community, to be good people, and to raise their children to be good, virtuous, hard working and generous. Family values with conviction, backed by action.
Yet, the apple tends to fall, in all giving, pretty close to the tree. Yalies give to Yale, preps to their prep school. Educated money to the arts and cultural institutions that provide services that donors use and appreciate. The believer gives to his or her church or house of worship. The church may be in a good part of town, surrounded by big houses. The pet lover endows a home for poodles. The athlete a stadium. And on and on.
The problem is that the communities of the poor have few in their communities who can make large gifts. And the money does not often come voluntarily from the big houses, or Churches, in the wealthy neighborhoods. Instead comes the rhetoric of self reliance and the ownership society, which falls hard upon the ears of the dispossessed.
Involuntary philanthropy or taxation is a forced exaction to make up for the limitations of our own sympathy and range of personal experience and face to face compassion. As citizens in our little communities of interest, we do not know, often, who needs what most. Government programs fill in what glamorous giving, and elite giving, and "be like me" giving so often forgets, that those most in need may be out of sight, beyond the pale of our sympathy and yet have a call upon us as fellow citizens. Nor can business do much for those without marketable skills, good health, or the ability to buy things.
So when the conservative case is made for generous, please ask: To whom? When the dollars stop moving, from scrapped government programs back to the rich, and the rich to those like themselves, who will be homeless, broken and without hope, and without help? When generosity fails, will we as a nation tread the afflicted, and the weak, under foot? Beyond generosity, I am told, is justice.