Is charity a good indicator of civic virtue?

Arthur C. Brooks is a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. His recent book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, develops a number of data sets to show that conservatives give a larger percentage of their income than liberals. There’s a review here, but it doesn’t answer some of the most important questions.

1. How was ‘liberality’ determined? Is this about party affiliation? What about unregistered voters? Does the income/party correlation effect this?

2. How much of so-called philanthropy is really charitable? Presumably political donations are being excluded, which may account for some of the difference. There’s also a difference between redistributive giving and ostentatious donations which have clear social benefits, and can sometimes serve as advertising or to buy access to particular venues and clients. To my mind, the latter has no civic value, just as donations to museums or social clubs are more about conspicuous consumption than the public or communal good.

The article notes that the gap between political affiliations closes sharply when religious giving is removed from consideration, and tithing in most churches is not a charitable act: it goes to pay for the operating expenses of the church, and is a very public procedure by which your fellow community members evaluate your standing and value. Just because some churches are -also- the hubs of volunteerism does not automatically make all religious donations charitable. We might just as well call union dues charity, since the rates are determined democratically and the membership uses them to achieve redistributive results in the welfare system.

Brooks is trying to argue against government redistributive schemes, like taxation for services, since this “crowds out” private giving. On my view, non-profits that serve disadvantaged populations are better off with public funding than private giving, since private funding comes with more varied and demanding strings attached. Individual philanthropists are constantly trying to import various management and business models into the non-profit world, and chasing the philanthropic dollar usually requires charitable organizations to spend money on salaries and personnel to placate these moody givers. I’ve seen organizations cast adrift by the competing, mercurial demands of givers, while the government’s admittedly bureaucratic demands are at least steady and transparent. This goes double for government services administered by the government: for all its flaws, the welfare state does better, fairer job than private givers ever could.

The ultimate question, though, is whether liberals (whoever they are) have less civic virtue because they give less. As Gose summarizes Brooks point: “Liberals should be wary of the idea that government offers the best solution to social issues, since such a viewpoint may weaken one’s own resolve to take action or give away money.” This notion that we become participants in our community by writing personal checks strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed. Taking action is good, it ought to be encouraged and, in my opinion, it’s the core of civic virtue. Indeed, some aspects of the administrative state discourage such action, and that’s a problem. Signing checks and dropping benjamins in the tithing basket? I don’t see the connection to civic virtue, though of course these actions have another value: they support organizations that the givers like. When I tip my barista, I do the same thing, but I don’t pretend it’s charity.