Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cheapskates And Projection

Cheapskates And Projection

I was very pleased to see this column by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof that appeared in the December 24, 2008 Santa Rosa Press-Democrat:
This holiday season is a time to examine who's been naughty and who's been nice, but I'm unhappy with my findings. The problem is this: We liberals are personally stingy.
Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad.
Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.
Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, "Who Really Cares," cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals. Other research has reached similar conclusions. The "generosity index" from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.
The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less to charity than Republicans -- the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.
"When I started doing research on charity," Brooks wrote, "I expected to find that political liberals -- who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did -- would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views."
Something similar is true internationally. European countries seem to show more compassion than the United States in providing safety nets for the poor, and they give far more humanitarian foreign aid per capita than the United States does. But as individuals, Europeans are far less charitable than Americans.
Americans give sums to charity equivalent to 1.67 percent of GNP, according to a terrific new book, "Philanthrocapitalism," by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. The British are second, with 0.73 percent, while the stingiest people on the list are the French, at 0.14 percent.
I am convinced that at least part of why liberals push so hard for the government to play Robin Hood is projection: liberals know what cheapskates they are, and assume that everyone is similarly unwilling to open their pockets to help those in need. Fortunately, liberals are still a minority of Americans.

There are a lot of reasons why governmental redistribution is an inferior way of providing for the needs of the poor. One reason is that the costs of administration and processing mean that more than half of the revenues spent by the federal government on helping the poor seem to get lost in the bureaucracies that collect the taxes, figure out who needs it, and then actually dole out the money. I would like to think that this is just because government is not very efficient, but I am reminded by Professor Milton Friedman's observation that when you ask middle class, college educated people to design a system for helping the poor, they inevitably come up with a system that creates jobs for middle class, college educated people.

A second reason why charitable contributions are better than governmental redistribution is that for the most part, charities for the relief of the poor don't seem to suffer from "mission creep" that transforms them into something that they were not intended to be. Rural electrification, when started during the New Deal, was intended to provide electric power to rural, usually desperately poor parts of America. Within the context of the welfare state, this was a commendable and sensible action to take. Today those rural electrification co-ops--which I understand still receive big federal subsidies--are overwhelmingly suburban communities that aren't poor.

A third advantage of charitable giving is that you get to decide which programs you consider most important. Most of our December charitable contributions (somewhat reduced from normal because of my job situation) went to World Vision and The Salvation Army, two groups whose work I greatly respect. I have no direct control over where my federal taxes will go, and for all I know, the "charitable" actions that I am funding might turn out to be an S&M festival somewhere, because of mission creep, and the inevitable ability of bureaucrats to confuse poverty and an poverty of values.

I am not suggesting that all governmental assistance to the poor should stop. There are holes in the private safety net, and the government handles some of this, although perhaps not very efficiently. But I would love to see liberals put more of their enormous wealth into helping the poor through charitable contributions, and a bit less trying to force the rest of us to fund the National Endowment for the Arts, and other offensive or questionable programs.

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