Do liberals and conservatives differ on caring and compassion?


Liberals have long held that they are more caring, more compassionate than others, especially conservatives. This often is offered as the moral rock underpinning liberal policies, and to many liberals these are the only policies that matter. To them, fervent caring is related to the notion that, morally, they walk on water. Some make it clear that they occupy the highest moral plane.

Lately, however, accumulated evidence contradicts this more caring, more compassionate belief, causing one to re-examine the question: Who are the more compassionate?

First, note that scientifically measuring intensity of emotional feelings of compassion for comparison between two humans remains out of the question. But researchers are working on it. With direct measures beyond reach, we must rely on indirect evidence that certain tests may provide. In doing so, we ask what response would people provide to various questions.

Using this approach, results obtained by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, were reported in The Wall Street Journal in 2010. A large sample of people was asked to identify themselves as either favoring more redistribution of income, or against it. When asked, however, how much they gave to private charities, those in the anti-redistribution group reported giving a surprising 400 percent more than those in the redistribution group reported giving.

The overall media speculation on this topic had led us to expect the opposite result. These findings are surprising.

But, you say, suppose the sample contained a large proportion of wealthy, high-income people. Would not this bias the numbers and give these results? Moreover, you ask, wouldn’t the tax deductibility of charitable donations also bias the results?


HOWEVER, WHEN THE responses were counted holding incomes at given levels – i.e., holding income constant – the same results were obtained. In other words, adjusting for income, people against redistribution reported giving more to charity than did redistributionists.

And since income is being held constant, the relationship between donations and attitude toward redistribution is not affected by tax deductibility of the donations. That is to say, the same relationship between giving and attitude toward redistribution apparently occurs even among low- income, non-taxpaying citizens.

Remarkably, this same result is obtained even when we hold constant education, age and religion. Moreover, this disparity is not motivated by religion. Against-redistribution respondents gave about 350 percent more to charity than redistributionists, holding religion constant.

This strong preference for private charity, which holds over a range of cultural traits, represents an important difference between voluntary and involuntary giving. These two types of transfer are not of equal quality. Income transfers to the needy via taxation are involuntary transfers; private giving is voluntary.

In terms of personal satisfaction, there is a vast gap between these two forms of giving. The former is impersonal with no need for a showing of gratitude from the recipient; after all, the income transfer is an entitlement, a right with no chance for a warm personal relationship to appear between grantor and grantee. Voluntary donations, coming from the heart, are more personal, with the donor able to see sincere gratitude in the smile, or in the eyes of the recipient. This warms the heart of the giver. There is no way to transfer this warmth to taxation. Indeed, the human touch is almost completely lost with involuntary giving.

Redistribution, or involuntary transfers, goes beyond welfare that serves basic needs. While still anchored to compassion, redistribution is based on the presumptive notion of a voter, say Mr. A, believing that his neighbor, Mr. B,, should share some of his income with an unknown Mr. C., which may include Mr. A as a special case.

Inevitably, ambitious politicians will seize upon this preference and use it as a vehicle to propel themselves to power, to personal glory, to fame and even fortune, along with a law that captures this belief. Journalists often throw the mantle of public service over this type of activity.


INTUITIVELY, ONE WOULD expect a close association between anti-redistribution and conservative ideologists, and a similar nexus between liberals and redistributionists. Evidence of these connections was found in Arthur C. Brooks’ study 2006 titled Who Really Cares? There, it is stated that in 2000, holding income constant, conservative household heads gave 30 percent more to charities than liberal heads. Since this calculation was adjusted for income as well, it holds for all income levels.

We have no evidence, direct or indirect, that liberals are more compassionate and caring than those who profess to be against income redistribution. But if conservatives are more caring than liberals, we would expect to observe conservatives sharing more of their income with charities, regardless of income levels, than liberals.

But as just noted, they indeed paid 30 percent more. Their associated brethren, who oppose redistribution, paid out 400 percent more to charities than redistributionists.

Even though charitable contributions are tax-deductible, and conservatives tend to occupy higher income levels, these results are obtained despite the fact that conservatives may reduce current cash charitable giving corresponding to some portion of their income taxes paid.

They realize that a significant portion of total entitlement spending is paid by their taxes before current personal charitable contributions.

Caring for the needy is manifested in liberal support of redistribution policies and steeply progressive taxes in every conceivable form – and since those who pay the bulk of income and estate taxes are the wealthy, liberals make certain they do most of the heavy lifting.

Overall, this leads to the important conclusion that a hitherto unrecognized and unappreciated mountain of goodwill, of altruism, resides among both factions – people who speak with their hearts through their checkbooks.


(The writer is a professor emeritus of financial economics at the University of Georgia. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)


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