Bah humbug?

The story of Mr Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol reminds us that the festive season is a time to think about more than the giving of presents to friends and family. This was a theme that Nick Kristof picked up in an article in the New York Times on Saturday, where he called on liberals to start matching conservatives in their giving.

Nick picked out some figures from the book (which he thinks is “terrific”) that show Americans are more than twice as generous as Britons and about ten times as generous as the French. He also looked at Arthur C. Brooks analysis Who really cares that shows that conservatives are more generous than liberals, the religious more generous than the secular, and those from large families are more generous than the rest (which we discuss in some detail in the book).

Nick’s call for liberals to step up to (put some money into) the plate provoked a flurry of discussion on the Daily Kos website.

Conservatives are triumphant.

Liberals protest that conservatives seem more generous because they give to religious causes that are more of a club good than a public good. This complaint is only half correct – much religious giving goes to addressing social problems not the pursuit of religion per se (it is also worth noting that many Europeans give through voluntary ‘church taxes’, which are excluded from most international comparisons of charitable giving, so Europeans aren’t as mean as they seem).

Liberals also say that they want to give through their taxes rather than private charity. They are right that different social models have an impact on the scale and purpose of charitable giving – higher taxes and extensive welfare systems in Europe limit the supply of philanthropic funds and the demand for their services. But it’s a mistake if liberals think that government provision means that they don’t have to put their hands into their own pockets.

As we argue in the conclusion to the book, there is a growing recognition that the state does not have all answers to society’s problems. Private donors can do things that governments simply cannot. The philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates are leading the way with their relatively large sums of money, tackling diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS where governments have made little progress. But those sums of money are still tiny compared to government and the philanthrocapitalists are increasingly using their money to leverage changes in public policy.

This is controversial – polemicists on left and right see the donors on the other side as perfidious manipulators of public opinion. Which is why more and more philanthropists, on both sides, are looking for this type of ‘leverage’. That’s probably the best reason for liberals to start giving more – because it works.