Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Private and Public Generosity

This theme has been touched upon before but it's good to remind ourselves from time to time just how mistaken are those who seek to portray conservatives as grinches who hate the poor. Arthur Brooks has done a number of pieces in which he disabuses his readers of this misconception, and he has another one out now in the Wall Street Journal. Here's a part of his column:
It is common to hear that the popular uprising against the growth of the welfare state, with rising taxes and deficits, is based on a lack of caring toward those who are suffering the most in the current crisis. As soon-to-be ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it, the tea party is working "for the rich instead of for the great middle class." Others have asserted that the backlash against the growth of government is nothing more than an attack on the poor.

Americans in general are very charitable, by international standards. Study after study shows that we privately give multiples of what our Social Democratic friends in Europe donate, per capita. But not all Americans are equally generous. One characteristic of givers is especially important in the current debate: the opinion that the government should not redistribute income to achieve greater economic equality.

Consider the answer to the question, "Do you believe the government has a responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor?" Many surveys have asked this over the years. In 2006, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) found that Americans were almost equally divided on this question (52% in favor, 48% against). This is in stark contrast to the Europeans. For example, 94% of the Portuguese in the 2006 ISSP survey were in favor of redistribution; only 6% were against.

When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct "charity gap" opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.

The most recent year that a large, nonpartisan survey asked people about both redistributive beliefs and charitable giving was 1996. That year, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to nonreligious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education.
No doubt there are a number of reasons for this disparity between conservatives and liberals. Perhaps one of them is that conservatives are often motivated by religious beliefs which enjoin them to help the poor whereas liberals are more likely to be secularists who feel themselves under no such obligation.

Whatever the reason there appears to be little connection between opposition to the welfare state and personal generosity. If that's so, then the question arises as to why people who are personally charitable are so opposed to helping others through government largesse. I think the obvious answer is because, except in extreme cases of last resort, they perceive government aid as a band-aid that simply subsidizes poverty and provides a disincentive for getting out of it. It doesn't work and is often, even usually, a waste of money. People would much rather help through agencies they know are punctilious about how their money is used and which make every effort to apply every dollar as efficiently and effectively as possible. In other words, they prefer the government not handle their charity.

The More Things Change

Richard Fernandez at The Belmont Club makes the interesting point that there's every bit as much moral judgmentalism infusing the public square as ever there was, but that what is considered moral and immoral is very much different today than, say, forty years ago. He writes:
Morals legislation appears to be as pervasive as ever. Nothing in the current environment suggests there exist opinions on which you may not be lectured. The extent of what is out of bounds is growing all the time. What has changed is the contents of that proscribed area. It may now be a crime to quote the Bible.

For example, in May of 2010 a British preacher [a Mr. McAlpine]was arrested for handing out leaflets saying that homosexuality was a sin. A policeman approached “to warn him they had received complaints and that if he made any racist or homophobic comments he would be arrested.”

I told him homosexuality is a sin, and he told me “I am a homosexual, I find that offensive, and I’m also the liaison officer for the bisexual-lesbian-gay-transsexual community”,’ he said yesterday. ‘I told him it was still a sin.’

Mr Adams last year represented Cumbria Police at the Gay Pride march in Manchester. On the social networking site MySpace, he describes his orientation as gay and his religion as atheist.

After the warning, Mr McAlpine took over preaching for 20 minutes, although he claims he did not cover homosexuality. But while he talked to a passer-by the PCSO radioed for assistance and he was arrested by uniformed officers.

He was taken to a police station, had his pockets emptied and his mobile phone taken along with his belt and shoes, and was kept in the cells for seven hours where he sang hymns to keep his spirits up.

It is exactly the same process that might have occurred fifty years ago but with a policeman warning a homosexual he could not distribute leaflets advocating sodomy. What has changed isn’t that people are being warned off for their beliefs. What is different is which beliefs they are being warned against. The Ins and the Outs have changed places, but he door remains the same. Wikipedia writes that “views on public morality do change over time,” but whether public morality itself can ever be abolished is an open question.

One of the drivers of the new public morality is who can fight back. British policemen do not go around telling Muslim imams not to preach against homosexuality because such preachers may take strenuous exception to their warnings. But the rules of the new morality are often capricious, unstated or simply arcane.
Fernandez has a point. You'd risk being shouted down were you to suggest publicly that almost any form of sexual expression is wrong. You'd be called a prude, a bigot, and intolerant. On the other hand, progressive society is very intolerant of people who don't belong to any of the groups approved or favored by the contemporary standard-setters. If one is a smoker, a meat-eater, or wears furs, one can expect to meet with a certain measure of social opprobrium in our more liberal precincts. Likewise if one is a Catholic or fundamentalist or a pro-lifer.

Tolerance of other peoples' preferences and beliefs often extends only to those who think the way our left-leaning elites think. All others merit society's anathema and execration.