Thursday, March 27, 2008

Compassionate Conservatism and the Liberal Politics of Intention

I really can't count the number of times that my father, who has sought to inculcate all of his children with Reagan conservatism since the cradle, has told me, "Rachel, remember that liberals believe in the politics of intention, not of action or reality. Whether or not liberal policies actually yield any real, beneficial results doesn't matter--all that matters is what they intend to do."

This just became exceedingly clear to me while perusing George Will's short article in today's Washington Post.

According to a recent study, he says in a sharp turn of phrase, "Conservatives are more liberal givers" to charitable causes.

Sixteen months ago, Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, published "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism." The surprise is that liberals are markedly less charitable than conservatives.

If many conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, Brooks, a registered independent, is, as a reviewer of his book said, a social scientist who has been mugged by data. They include these findings:

-- Although liberal families' incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

-- Conservatives also donate more time and give more blood.

-- Residents of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 gave smaller percentages of their incomes to charity than did residents of states that voted for George Bush.

-- Bush carried 24 of the 25 states where charitable giving was above average.

-- In the 10 reddest states, in which Bush got more than 60 percent majorities, the average percentage of personal income donated to charity was 3.5. Residents of the bluest states, which gave Bush less than 40 percent, donated just 1.9 percent.

-- People who reject the idea that "government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality" give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.


Brooks is a social scientist, and sees a correlation between conservatives' values and convictions and their altruism. Religious faith obviously has a large impact on the "time, talent and treasure" which Americans choose to give, and those who are identified as very religious tend to be more politically conservative. This is a sociological point.

But an even more interesting point Brooks makes connects the philosophical underpinnings of conservatism with conservatives' tendency to give more. It all has to do, Will says, with their idea of "the proper role of government."

While conservatives tend to regard giving as a personal rather than governmental responsibility, some liberals consider private charity a retrograde phenomenon -- a poor palliative for an inadequate welfare state, and a distraction from achieving adequacy by force, by increasing taxes. Ralph Nader, running for president in 2000, said: "A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity." Brooks, however, warns: "If support for a policy that does not exist ... substitutes for private charity, the needy are left worse off than before. It is one of the bitterest ironies of liberal politics today that political opinions are apparently taking the place of help for others."


An even more apt response to Nader, I believe, comes from Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love. (paragraph 29)


Perhaps Nader didn't realize that 'charity' doesn't just refer to the material aid given by one person to another. But charity is a theological virtue--love--and the only reason we even call 'charity' by that name is because we--long ago, perhaps!--understood it as the bringing to reality of our vocation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Of course, to a liberal such as Nader, actually loving our neighbors in the here and now isn't necessary. Actually helping them to survive the hard times, to obtain the resources which they need to live and to flourish TODAY, doesn't matter. What matters is that we talk about changing the future; it's immaterial what happens today. What other lesson could one take away from this research?

NB - This post is not at all intended as a self-gratifying pat on the back. I really think that the philosophical/ideological issues at work here--and how they manifest themselves in reality--are stunning in their consequences.

7 comments:

Brandon said...

1) Did anyone really doubt this result?

2) "Conservative" and "Liberal" aren't very good descriptors and don't correlate absolutely with Republican and Democrat. In particular, I have met a number of Republicans at ND whom I would describe as
"liberal," or at least more so than me.

3) It doesn't look like this study took into account all the money that "conservatives" give to churches which in turn funnel the money into social programs.

4) Caritas may be of chief importance but iustitia cannot be overlooked. Nader is essentially right, a society that is just theoretically wouldn't need charity. In fact Catholic social teaching is predicated on the idea that a society which is just need not go through the often embarassing ordeal of administering charity. The 'dignity of' and 'right to' work stipulate that each man (yes, until John Paul II the Pope's use gender exclusive language) be paid enough to support his family: "Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman." (Quadragesimo Anno 71). If people have enough money to give away then there is enough money within the system of wage appropriation to serve justice by paying living wages to all. Rachel is right in saying that we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back, for if our institutions were just, we wouldn't have a need for charity, because people would receive adequate remuneration for their labor.

4) You are splicing the definition of charity. Of course we always need love ("Love one another as I have loved you") but in a just world we wouldn't need the supererogatory act of donating money for the care of others. We would give time and talent sure, but treasure we could keep.

Brandon said...

Yeah I put 4 twice, mea culpa

Rachel said...

A few responses, Brandon...

2) I agree. But out there in the 'real' political world when people are conducting sociological research, they don't conceive of quite so much ideological diversity. The results still seem to hold.

3) I'm not sure what you mean by this. The point that Brooks (and Will for him) was trying to make is that conservatives don't favor pumping so much cash into institutional, government-run social programs, but would rather decide for themselves where to give their own money to private charities.

Because they favor such privatization, it seems, conservatives feel a much closer connection--and much stronger imperative--to give of their own money, than do those who believe it is the government's job to provide for all citizens. The point is that there's a difference between a privately-administered 'social program,' which can espouse its own particular mission and to which people can freely choose to donate, and an institutionalized public one.

4) I am in no way overlooking justice--I am seeing it together with charity, as it should be seen. B-16's point, made throughout Deus Caritas Est, is that *we cannot divide them*.

Nader is NOT right. Justice does not exist in theory, it only exists in action. And it only exists in action when it is brought into being by people who are doing so out of love.

Your quote from Quadragesimo Anno doesn't speak of systemic, top-down changes as Nader (or Marx, for that matter - See paragraph 26 of DCE) supports. Yes, the dignity of man and the dignity of his labor demands that he be paid a wage which allows him to live and to flourish, for that is what justice requires. But I think the more nuanced point is that the dignity of man cannot be served only by political systems which misunderstand that dignity. That's why Marxism turned out so badly.

Benedict affirms that justice is the primary task of politics, but we can't just assume that everyone's pursuit of justice will look the same or even be aiming towards the same end. What's necessary? For the practical reason which engages in politics and seeks justice to be purified by faith--faith in God who is Love.

5) I don't mean to 'splice' the definition of charity, but to show that you can't divide it into the theological virtue of love on the one hand and then the social action which should flow from it on the other.

Even if Nader WERE only talking about 'administering charity,' as I'm almost positive he was, I'm nonetheless quite uneasy that he believes that we CAN create a just society in which neighborly charity will be unnecessary.

To think that WE can create "a just society" ourselves is a very dangerous idea. We can't. Until Christ comes again and the Kingdom of God reigns on earth, our society will be FAR from just. That is the sad result of original sin, and no political institutions can lessen its force. To believe that we can create a society which is so just that we no longer need the persons who make up that society to act out of regard for one another is a fundamentally different view of the purpose of politics, and far from a conservative one.

Brandon said...

The point is that if our non-governmental institutions were just, then we wouldn't need either government or charity. But conservatives propagate unjust institutions, poo-poo government and then give themselves credit for being charitable. (Yeah, not all conservatives but the big time ones, and the liberals too)

Our institutions should be just. Should implies can and if they couldn't be just by and large then what the hell are we working for? Those of us who at least like to think that we are working for something like to think that we can create a just world. A perfect world, no. (As long as man roams earth it will never be perfect, nor would it be perfect without man.) But a just world yes. Because that we can make by the grace and inspiration of God.

Rachel said...

Which unjust non-governmental institutions are you thinking, in particular, Brandon?

My point is that we're focusing on the wrong thing when we keep talking about creating just institutions. Yeah, that's important, and that's the job of politics.

But you don't get just institutions without just people. If people can't be perfectly just--and they can't in this life, because of the Fall--then the institutions they create certainly can't be perfectly just either.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep striving for justice, but it does mean that we need to keep things in perspective. It means we need to focus more on the here and now of how we live our lives, how we act justly towards ourselves and towards our neighbors. To focus on the institutions and ignore justice in our own lives is the error of today's progressives/liberals. Conversely, traditional conservatism calls people to the life of virtue--the life of justice.

Just institutions should be secondary, and that's the point I was trying to make by posting this to begin with. It's not enough to envision a world of just institutions and believe that your work towards that end is enough (as Al Gore apparently does, according to the article.) We are called to live NOW in justice and love.

Again, justice doesn't exist 'theoretically,' in the future when it will come because our institutions have progressed enough. We can talk about justice in theoretical terms, but it only exists in and through the just actions of just people.

Brandon said...

Virtually every energy company in this country, most agriculture companies, Burger King, anything located in the San Fernando Valley, and of course these institutions are run by unjust people and very often are helped out by government. But that just goes to show that a more just world has less government.

And I really hope that you don't believe that creating just institutions is the job of politics, I know you can't believe that Rachel. You and I know that creating just institutions is the duty of citizens in exercizing their rights of freedom. The government isn't there to create anything, it is there to act as the voice of the people when they are disproportionately, negatively affected by an unjust institution. But the government cannot make the institution just, many of the government's expectations for businesses fall far short of justice. Only we can create, yes by the grace and inspiration of God. Justice requires to government, nor charity, it requires a commitment from the rest of us when we are just and create or sustain just institutions.

Acting justly now is a step in the process of creating just institutions. No our man-made institutions can't be perfectly just, but if they were even sufficiently so then we wouldn't need the charitable actions of "conservatives."

Rachel said...

OK, I thought you were talking about social service-type 'institutions'. Thanks for the clarification.

Saying that something is the job of 'politics' is not the same as saying that it is the job of 'government'. I'm thinking of politics broadly-defined, as the action of human beings in the ordering of society. I wasn't trying to say that the government acts apart from the people, creating things. I actually tend to think that we act 'politically' quite often, without directly affecting 'government' per se...but that's another story.

I'm really not sure what to make of your last comment, Brandon. Do you really believe that there will be a point in time when 'charity,' administered by any given organization, will be unnecessary? There are so many natural injustices that simply can never be overcome in this world.

The point, like I tried to say, isn't "Oh, look! A study proves that conservatives really are better people than liberals!". Instead it reveals a different way of living our lives NOW, I believe. We can talk all we want about building just institutions, but it's really all hot air when people are starving down the street and we don't find it personally compelling enough to address, and instead keep thinking about the future.