Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

Who is More Compassionate: Conservatives or Liberals?

Posted by Tony Listi on May 15, 2008

“The conventional wisdom runs like this: Liberals are charitable because they advocate government redistribution of money in the name of social justice; conservatives are uncharitable because they oppose these policies. But note the sleight of hand: Government spending, according to this logic, is a form of charity.

Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues. Because government spending is not charity, sanctimonious yard signs do not prove that the bearers are charitable or that their opponents are selfish. (On the contrary, a public attack on the integrity of those who don’t share my beliefs might more legitimately constitute evidence that I am the uncharitable one.)

To evaluate accurately the charity difference between liberals and conservatives, we must consider private, voluntary charity. How do liberals and conservatives compare in their private giving and volunteering? Beyond strident slogans and sarcastic political caricatures, what, exactly, do the data tell us?

The data tell us that the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. In most ways, political conservatives are not personally less charitable than political liberals—they are more so.

First, we must define “liberals” and “conservatives.” Most surveys ask people not just about their political party affiliation but also about their ideology. In general, about 10 percent of the population classify themselves as “very conservative”; and another 10 percent call themselves “very liberal.” About 20 percent say they are simply “liberal,” and 30 percent or so say they are “conservative.” The remaining 30 percent call themselves “moderates” or “centrists.” In this discussion, by “liberals” I mean the approximately 30 percent in the two most liberal categories, and by conservatives I mean the 40 percent or so in the two most con­servative categories.

So how do liberals and conservatives compare in their charity? When it comes to giving or not giving, conservatives and liberals look a lot alike. Conservative people are a percentage point or two more likely to give money each year than liberal people, but a percentage point or so less likely to volunteer.

But this similarity fades away when we consider average dollar amounts donated. In 2000, households headed by a conservative gave, on average, 30 percent more money to charity than households headed by a liberal ($1,600 to $1,227). This discrepancy is not simply an artifact of income differences; on the contrary, liberal families earned an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich.

If we look at party affiliation instead of ideology, the story remains largely the same. For example, registered Republicans were seven points more likely to give at least once in 2002 than registered Democrats (90 to 83 percent).

The differences go beyond money and time. Take blood donations, for example. In 2002, conservative Americans were more likely to donate blood each year, and did so more often, than liberals. If liberals and moderates gave blood at the same rate as conservatives, the blood supply in the United States would jump by about 45 percent.

The political stereotypes break down even further when we consider age: “Anyone who is not a socialist before age thirty has no heart, but anyone who is still a socialist after thirty has no head,” goes the old saying. And so we imagine crusty right-wing grandfathers socking their money away in trust funds while their liberal grandchildren work in soup kitchens and save the whales. But young liberals—perhaps the most vocally dissatisfied political constituency in America today—are one of the least generous demographic groups out there. In 2004, self-described liberals younger than thirty belonged to one-third fewer organizations in their communities than young conservatives. In 2002, they were 12 percent less likely to give money to charities, and one-third less likely to give blood. Liberal young Americans in 2004 were also significantly less likely than the young conservatives to express a willingness to sacrifice for their loved ones: A lower percentage said they would prefer to suffer than let a loved one suffer, that they are not happy unless the loved one is happy, or that they would sacrifice their own wishes for those they love.

The compassion of American conservatives becomes even clearer when we compare the results from the 2004 U.S. presidential election to data on how states address charity. Using Internal Revenue Service data on the percentage of household income given away in each state, we can see that the red states are more charitable than the blue states. For instance, of the twenty-five states that donated a portion of household income above the national average, twenty-four gave a majority of their popular votes to George W. Bush for president; only one gave the election to John F. Kerry. Of the twenty-five states below the national giving average, seventeen went for Kerry, but just seven for Bush. In other words, the electoral map and the charity map are remarkably similar.

These results are not an artifact of close elections in key states. The average percentage of household income donated to charity in each state tracked closely with the percentage of the popular vote it gave to Mr. Bush. Among the states in which 60 percent or more voted for Bush, the average portion of income donated to charity was 3.5 percent. For states giving Mr. Bush less than 40 percent of the vote, the average was 1.9 percent. The average amount given per household from the five states combined that gave Mr. Bush the highest vote percentages in 2003 was 25 percent more than that donated by the average household in the five northeastern states that gave Bush his lowest vote percentages; and the households in these liberal-leaning states earned, on average, 38 percent more than those in the five conservative states.

People living in conservative states volunteer more than people in liberal states. In 2003, the residents of the top five “Bush states” were 51 percent more likely to volunteer than those of the bottom five, and they volunteered an average of 12 percent more total hours each year. Residents of these Republican-leaning states volunteered more than twice as much for religious organizations, but also far more for secular causes. For example, they were more than twice as likely to volunteer to help the poor.

Surely Jimmy Carter would have been surprised to learn that the selfish Americans he criticized so vociferously were most likely the very people who elected him president.

© Basic Books – 2007″

The Statistics

People who are religious give more across the board to all causes than their non-religious counterparts

There is a huge “charity gap” that follows religion: On average, religious people are far more generous than secularists with their time and money. This is not just because of giving to churches—religious people are more generous than secularists towards explicitly non-religious charities as well. They are also more generous in informal ways, such as giving money to family members, and behaving honestly.

Giving supports economic growth and actually creates prosperity

Many studies show that giving and volunteering improve physical health and happiness, and lead to better citizenship. In other words, we need to give for our own good. Cultural and political influences—and the many government policies—that discourage private charitable behavior have negative effects that are far more widespread than people usually realize.

The working poor in America give more to charity than the middle class

The American working poor are, relative to their income, some of the most generous people in America today. The nonworking poor, however—those on public assistance instead of earning low wages—give at lower levels than any other group. In other words, poverty does not discourage charity in America, but welfare does.

Upper level income people often give less than the working poor

Among Americans with above-average incomes who do not give charitably, a majority say that they ‘don’t have enough money.’ Meanwhile, the working poor in America give a larger percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group, including the middle class and rich.


People who give money charitably are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.
A religious person is 57% more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person.
Conservative households in America donate 30% more money to charity each year than liberal households.
If liberals gave blood like conservatives do, the blood supply in the U.S. would jump by about 45%.

17 Responses to “Who is More Compassionate: Conservatives or Liberals?”

  1. Commentor said

    “Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues.”

    And if Conservatives had empathy the ‘beneficial and humane’ argument would win out and they would stop whining about this obligatory redistribution.

  2. Commentor said

    A religious person is 57% more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person.

    of course a lot of religious people are Liberal, and a lot of secularists are Penn & Teller / South Park Libertarian atheists

  3. foospro86 said

    Arthur Brooks was not conceding that the welfare state was beneficial and humane. He was merely trying to shove irrelevant arguments out of the way in order to make a point. The fact of the matter is that government social programs are neither beneficial nor humane. They make the problems worse. I encourage to actually read up on the real consequences of Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society.

    Whining? Speaking out against injustice and for the rule of law (i.e. the Constitution) is not whining. You might as well say George Washington or MLK were whining.
    Virtually all conservatives are religious and thus all conservatives have empathy. But unlike liberals, we don’t coerce money from other people with our votes. We don’t try to ease our consciences by sending a check to the IRS and patting ourselves on the back for supporting some bureaucrat. We give of our OWN time, money, and effort directly to the people who need it. We make a personal connection. We build real communities. That is something a government bureaucrat can never do. Maybe one day you will wake up, understand, tell the government to get out of the way, and then give of yourself. You would be surprised how much can get done when you can devote more time to volunteering than working to fatten up the government.

    A lot of religious people are liberal, true. That is something I’m trying to change. And yes, many libertarians are atheists or agnostics. Religious liberals and libertarian atheists just don’t understand Christianity properly.

  4. […] people in the USA that hold Judeo-Christian values are the most compassionate in the world.  The point I am making is that today’s Christians are tempted to become […]

  5. Ryan said

    Great points throughout! Love what you said about how government programs, though they are framed as being humane and intended aid poverty, they in fact exacerbate the situation.

    You wrote about the tendency for younger people, under 30, to be drawn toward socialism and after 30 they “mature” and turn away from that mentality. I am just able to say I am under 30 and have been Conservative pretty much since I started to establish my own political identity, but I have also been very religious the whole time. Do you think that maturing from “socialistic immaturity” to what you might call “conservative maturity” is deteriorating with the country becoming less religious?

    Obviously, there are more factors to that transition in the past than religious activity, but I think they may be more tied in some respects because of the fundamental tendency of religious people looking to God for aid as opposed to more secular people looking to Man/Government for aid.

  6. Mateo said

    Great stuff! I’m curious though, where did you find your sources for those statistics?

  7. mfgrape said

    While the numbers look in favor of Conservatives, I would really appreciate seeing sources sited for statistical data.
    Also, I think the blood donation statistic was unnecessary, given that blood donations have strict requirements (for public safety) and some Liberals lead lifestyles that forbid them from donating blood or have traveled to countries that make their blood undesirable (of course, we would have to find statistics regarding who travels abroad more to support my claim, but any good researcher would have found that information first before using it to prove their point).
    Finally, if there are statistics out there regarding who is more compassionate, I think a wiser study would include at least a decade or more worth of study and statistics, before making claims one way or another.
    I am quite willing to concede, but I would like to make sure I am conceding on grounds that are firm and solid, without any holes. If the research was done thoroughly to prevent any loopholes (such as tax write-off research, undocumented volunteering or giving, etc.), then I should eat my words if this is the result.

  8. Michael said

    I am somewhat skeptical of Brooke’s findings. That blood statistic sounds a little fishy to me, and I am not sure why that was used as an example to make “conservatives” look more compassionate. In regards to the Salvation Army example, the reason that could have done better in Sioux Falls than San Francisco is that the people didn’t want to support a religious related idea. If it had been for say, Amnesty International, I think you would get more money from San Francisco than Sioux Falls. Like the former commentary, I think this study should be repeated and then done over time to be sure this is accurate. I believe we would find that the giving between the two groups is about the same. I also like the idea of another person who suggested we just give credit to those who are compassionate and forget the labels.
    It seems to me to make a conclusion based on one study is not good science, though I not a scientist by trade.

  9. […] […]

  10. […] work of God despite the fact that 82% of Americans consider themselves Christian, most of those are middle class who donate to charities in higher amounts than rich people, and 52% of those believe that other religions besides Christianity can lead to eternal life. This […]

  11. MD said

    Conservatives are more religious than liberals. Conservatives pay their church dues, which is considered charity. It is not surprising that the amount which conservatives donate to charity per this definition is higher.

    Also, most atheists and agnostics are former Christians, Jews, etc. They learned more about their own religion and about other religions than the current Christians, Jews, etc. They actually moved away from organized religion because they know more about religion than the believers do.

    • Tony Listi said

      Churches actually DO charitable work. So I don’t see what would be wrong with including donations to churches in the definition of charity. Every gift freely given to someone is charity. Don’t think you can exclude churches or any other organization just because you don’t like them.

      “they know more about religion than the believers do”
      This is ridiculous and unfounded. Atheists and agnostics are full of contradictory arguments and misconceptions and misrepresentations of Judeo-Christian culture. They are almost invariably VERY ignorant of the rational arguments in favor of faith and Christianity.

  12. MD said

    Oh, and one more thing. Most of the money which the conservatives donate to charity via their churches ends up in the tax free income for the church leaders. How do you think preachers have become millionaires while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet? We work for 40 or 50 years of our lives and cannot save as much wealth as the preachers have in their investments and bank accounts.

  13. […] […]

  14. […] Once in the United States, these immigrants, or descendants thereof, pursued economic opportunities and started families. Those willing to take risks and work hard started businesses. Many gave generously back to the communities with charitable donations and volunteering, dispelling the notion that American Exceptionalism promotes greed. In fact, households headed by conservatives give 30% more to charity than households headed by Progressives. Furthermore, business-owning entrepreneurs give over 80% more to charity than the rest of the population. In the United States, entrepreneurship and philanthropy have always been closely linked, as evidenced by Andrew Carnegie of the past and Bill Gates in the present. Regarding volunteerism, the top five conservative states were 51% more likely to volunteer than the least five…. […]

  15. Glenn Nile said

    I all depends on if you are talking about saving one person at a time or bettering a system that will end up saving millions of people. Conservatives realize that we all live under a system and anything that hurts that system, even at the cost of some individuals, hurts everyone living under that system. Liberals will save the individual at the cost of losing the forest.

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