Pedde: Those Unconcerned Conservatives
By Jonathan Pedde, Staff Columnist
Published on Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Over the past week, remarks that Mitt Romney made last May at a fundraiser — in which he appeared to write off 47 percent of the electorate — were met with a mixture of scorn and bewilderment. For many Democrats, these comments nicely dovetailed with previous insinuations that Romney and Paul Ryan are social Darwinists. More broadly, the incident seemed to confirm an oft-repeated narrative on the American left — conservatives simply do not care about the poor.
To be sure, this narrative long predates Romney’s comments. But it is, quite simply, incorrect.
The primary disagreement between American conservatives and liberals is not whether we all have a moral responsibility to help the poor — on this point, nearly everyone would agree. Instead, the real disagreement pertains to the question of whether government is the best means by which to discharge this responsibility. Many conservatives and libertarians would argue that voluntary charitable giving is preferable to government-run programs for two main reasons. First, charitable donations are largely voluntary while taxes are usually coercive. Most libertarians would argue that in a just society, individuals should voluntarily act in an ethical manner, rather than be coerced into ethical behavior. Meanwhile, conservatives have long argued that voluntary charitable giving, as opposed to government-funded welfare spending, is less likely to cause poorer individuals to become permanently dependent on continued assistance. In either case, liberals do not have a monopoly on the desire to improve the well-being of the poor.
This fact is indeed borne out in the real world. Last year, Mitt and Ann Romney gave 29.4 percent of their income to charity, while Barack and Michelle Obama gave 21.8 percent. But these numbers are both significantly higher than previous years, perhaps due to the upcoming election. Over the last 20 years, the Romneys have given 13.5 percent of their income to charity. In comparison, from 2000 to 2004 (the five years before Obama became a senator), the Obamas gave between 0.5 and 1.4 percent of their income to charity each year. While the Obamas are not fabulously wealthy, their family income was never below $200,000 per year in each of those five years. Over the next four years, the Obamas gave away between 4.7 and 6.5 percent of their income.
This difference in voluntary giving between the Romneys and the Obamas is also present between conservatives and liberals in general. According to research conducted over the last decade by Arthur Brooks, who was a public policy professor at Syracuse University, conservatives donate more to charities (both in absolute dollars and as a percentage of their incomes), spend more time volunteering and give blood more often.
Many liberals point out that this is partly due to the fact that conservatives donate more to religious institutions, which is true. However, most religious institutions allocate at least part of their donations to helping the poor and the needy. In addition, according to Brooks’ research, conservatives donate a larger percentage of their incomes to secular causes than liberals do. Finally, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out, many liberals often donate to secular organizations — symphonies, museums, universities — that arguably benefit the well-off more than the less-fortunate.
Other people argue that even though voluntary charitable giving is all well and good, the government is able to do certain things that charities simply cannot. This is also true. However, the relevant political question today is not whether we should abolish all government support for the needy, but whether a little more reliance on voluntary generosity would be beneficial.
I think the answer is yes. Perhaps due to the time I spent in East Africa and in India working for a non-profit, I am convinced that more voluntary charitable giving by well-off individuals can be truly beneficial to the rest of the world.
In fact, I would take the argument a step further — as a Dartmouth student, you are indeed a well-off individual by global standards, and thus you have a greater-than-average moral duty to help the less fortunate. By having been accepted to Dartmouth, you are a confirmed member of an elite among an already fortunate portion of the world’s population. To those whom much has been given, much is expected.
So, after you have graduated, when an opportunity arises for you to make a difference, what will your reaction be? Will you reach into your own pocket? Or will you simply call on the government to dig into someone else’s pocket and then pat yourself on the back for having supported social justice?