Book Review: Who Really Cares by Arthur C. Brooks

I decided to continue my reading this evening and read Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, undertook a study of American charitable activity to see who gives time and money, not just to organized charities but also in informal methods such as helping out neighbors or loaning money to friends and family. To his surprise, he found that across the board, conservatives are far more likely to give money and time to others than are liberals. He had bought the commonly accepted belief that liberals are more generous than are conservatives. So strong was his belief in this that he rechecked his figures from multiple times from multiple directions but could not escape the ultimate conclusion: conservatives are more generous than liberals.

In many ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: all the major religions promote charity as a positive obligation and, in America, religion is increasingly associated with political conservatism while irreligion is an increasing on the political Left. Similarly, survey after survey shows that those on the Left believe government has the ultimate responsibility to help the poor, while conservatives believe is falls to the community and charity. The conservative point of view is that we share a common responsibility where we must give our own time and money to help those less fortunate. Liberals prefer that the government, and by extension government employees, take care of the poor. This makes assisting the poor someone else’s job. I think Brooks missed this point when considering why liberals don’t give as much as conservatives: they believe it’s the government’s job to do so, so they don’t. Just as no one who isn’t paid to do so cleans windows at a McDonald’s, liberals don’t give as much money to help poor for the same reason: it’s somebody else’s job.

When discussing this book’s thesis on the Internet a while back, liberals trotted out some claims that, had they actually read the book, they would have found disproven. For example, it was claimed that liberals are just as generous as conservatives, they just do it differently, through the government rather than through charity. There are (at least) four problems with this. By this standard, they are generous… with someone else’s money. Second, is it really charity when it’s forced? Third, conservatives still give more even after taxes are accounted for. Fourth, taxes and government welfare spending both seem to have a negative effect on charitable giving.

Additionally, liberals claimed that conservatives only appeared to give more money to charity because they were giving to their churches. Again, Brooks disproves these claims with multiple facts. First, most churches also engage in assistance to the poor so why should the fact they give out of religious motives be held against them? Second, it turns out that religious people give more to non-religious charities than do non-religious people.

This book explodes a number of commonly held myths, and even shattered a few beliefs I had held. Definitely worth a read, and at less than 180 pages (if you skip the statistical appendix), not a time-consuming one.