Haynes: Compassionless Conservatism

In a recent piece, Jonathan Pedde obfuscates an important discussion about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments with largely irrelevant and mostly anecdotal evidence about private giving to charities (“Those Unconcerned Conservatives,” Sept. 25). Pedde is superficially correct about charitable giving data: Conservatives are more generous than liberals. His cursory analysis, however, ignores key distinctions in the data itself. Moreover, his piece conveniently evades the issue at hand Romney’s controversial “makers versus takers” dichotomy. Pedde’s advocacy for private charity is well-written but irrelevant: It amounts to a minor diversion in a debate that has been long decided in American politics.

Pedde’s column cites a study by Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks that shows that conservatives are more likely to donate to charity than liberals. Pedde misses key nuances in Brooks’ data, though, and misreads the larger implication for public policy. Conservatives are much more likely to be charitable not because they give money to churches, as Pedde suggests, but because they are religious in the first place. Brooks isolates four key factors that determine charitable giving: religious faith, family, attitude about government’s role and the source of one’s income. Religion, he explains, is by far the biggest driver of generosity. Religious people do not just give to churches, either; they also give and volunteer more for nonreligious causes. This key factor explains Pedde’s misappropriation of the data: Being conservative correlates well with higher generosity only because conservatives are far more likely to be religious than liberals.

The rest of Brooks’ data bears this point out well. The least privately charitable group that Brooks examines is secular conservatives, whose generosity is far lower than even secular liberals. Pedde’s claims about conservatives’ generosity rest on faulty logic. The overall data supports his claim because, as Brooks points out, religious conservatives outnumber secular conservatives three to one. Just being conservative, though, is hardly a precondition for higher charitable generosity. Pedde’s piece seems to suggest that conservatives give to charity because of a philosophical disagreement with government welfare. If this were true, the role of government not religion should be the largest driver in Brooks’ data.

Most importantly, Pedde’s piece misses the relevant political question. This election is not just about slightly rolling back the welfare state in favor of private giving; Romney’s admittedly scant budget proposals if they are to simultaneously cut taxes for the wealthy and protect Medicare, as he’s promised necessitate across the board decimation of many key government services, including social services for the needy. Romney’s comments reveal the underlying ideology behind these proposals: A dichotomy of makers versus takers fully justifies his draconian budget. Both Romney’s comments and Pedde’s anecdotal sleight of hand are misguided for several reasons.

First, over half of those not paying income taxes (Romney’s “47 percent”) have a job, pay payroll taxes and thus are not dependent on government by any definition. Many of the rest of that population are elderly, a group whose dependence upon the government Romney has promised to protect. Only a small fraction of these people are unemployed.

Secondly, many Americans have no federal income tax liability because Republicans passed very large tax cut plans under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. A number of these cuts for middle and lower-class Americans were included to make cuts for wealthier Americans more politically palatable. Others, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, were middle-of-the-road policy proposals supported by Republicans because they decreased government dependence. This is short-term political memory at its most absurd: Romney aims to channel outrage over low income tax rates largely created by his party to justify further tax cuts for the wealthy and a rollback of the social safety net.

Pedde ignores the most disturbing part of Romney’s comments. There should be a legitimate policy discussion regarding the role of government in this election, whether you think it ought be rolled back or expanded. Romney, however, goes one step further: “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Disagreements of principle and opinion are core to American democracy. Romney’s statement, however, disturbingly dismisses almost half the electorate not only because they won’t vote for him, but because he believes they are incapable of personal responsibility. Regardless of how much he gives to charity, no president should have that mindset. A president inspires and brings us together. He does not divide us and decide that half of America isn’t worth his effort. Compassionate conservatism is only possible if you actually have compassion.

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