Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Charity in the Community? Shocked, Shocked

Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University, says he is “surprised” to find that “religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals": such is the pitch for his new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (link).

Hard to blame him for professing surprise; books about unsurprising truth do not fly off the shelves. Others may be less surprised: there is indeed some evidence that “conservatives” in general are more plugged into voluntary networks than”liberals”—particularly (as Brooks apparently also purports to show) among the less well off, the ones least likely to profit from fleecing the government. I’m even willing to assume (I haven’t read the book) that he has controlled for the liars—although any pastor will tell you that the pledge envelopes are a lot more florid than the actual checks. But there is still room for some nuance:

“Charitable?” I assume Brooks is counting gifts to the Met—both the opera and the museum—and gifts to build a new university football stadium, as dollar for dollar equal the purchase of meals for the hungry? I might want to make some distinctions. And how does he account for, say, contributions to Hamas or Hezbollah? Brooks might say of the donors, that if it is their money, then they ought to be able to do what they want with it. Quite right, too, but that doesn’t make it charity.

“Charitable giving?” Does Brooks count gifts from people who are trying to buy their way into heaven? This doesn’t sound like charity to me; it sounds more like a simple bargain-and-exchange. Or how about simple vainglory—if I put up a sign saying THE BUCE/UNDERBELLY CENTER FOR THE HEALING OF LITTLE CHILDREN, am I engaged in simple charity, or arrant self-promotion—am I, indeed, trying to buy my way into heaven and the country club at the same time? Maimonides says somewhere that the only true charity is anonymous charity, because it is the only kind free of ulterior motive (though perhaps God knows anyway). I wonder how Brooks would track anonymous giving.

“Voluntary?” The standard mantra is that charity is voluntary, while taxes are, well, taxes. I am not so sure. Some “charity” may be “voluntary” even if not a “gift” –see supra. But if your whole life is bound up in (say) a religious community, I suspect that a good many of your answers to appeals are not voluntary at all.

From a different perspective, it might be nice to use the same matrix to track, say, felony tax evasion. For some segment of the populace, chiseling on your taxes is no more shameful than a speeding ticket ; indeed it may be a badge of honor. But I once knew a man who said that in discharging his tax obligation, he tried to err on the side of overpayment, because it was a privilege to live in a civilized society. If this is your attitude to tax-paying, then going light on the charitable endeavor might not seem like such a big deal.

To be fair, I’m not sure exactly what the data might show here—though I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the most conscientious taxpayers are among what we might call the working poor, those most likely to be victimized by the very government they support.

Afterthought: note the quotation in the first paragraph: “religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular´liberals. I take the phrase (and add the italics) from The Chronicle of Higher Education (link), as linked from Arts & Letters Daily (link), I haven’t read the book itself but I wonder about the phrasing. What about religious liberals versus secular conservatives. There are plenty of the former in the soup kitchens and halfway houses of Americas; plenty of the latter in the chattering class. Or what about, simply, conservatives versus liberals? Could it be that Brooks is onto more patterns more complex or challenging than he (or, at least, the Chronicle) have sought to convey? Or maybe there is just less here than meets the eye?

No comments: