24 Dec 2006

Conservatives Versus Liberals: Who Really Helps?

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Wilfred McClay, in the Wall Street Journal, finds a new empirical study reaches counterintuitive conclusions, according nonetheless with his own life experience.

Back in my misspent youth, I helped manage a political campaign. My candidate was, like myself, an energetic liberal Democrat, and we ran a summer-long door-to-door campaign throughout the sprawling district. I accompanied the candidate on his daily outings, recording data about each visit on 3 x 5 cards that had been prepared in advance. They included the party registration of the voters, as gathered from Board of Elections printouts.

After a number of weeks of this ceaseless contact with our would-be constituents, both of us noticed something disturbing. There was a consistent disparity between what we expected and what we found in the people we met. Self-labeled liberals would, at most, dutifully proclaim their support for our candidacy, but they were often curt and ungenerous with their time and money. Conservatives, who looked upon our ideas with suspicion, nevertheless were quite willing to talk with us about them, not to mention offering us glasses of water, inviting us onto their porches and into their homes, and otherwise treating us with courtesy and respect.

The candidate himself mused to me one day, as we sat on a curb together, “If I’m ever hit by a car, I sure as hell hope that the next guy to come along will be a conservative.” I asked him why. “Simple. A liberal will blame the unsafe conditions of the highways, blame budget cuts and keep driving. A conservative will get out of his car and help.”

That was quite a concession for him to make, and at the time I thought it unwarranted. But I remembered it years later when I was serving as a vestryman for my Episcopal church and became privy to information about the stewardship commitments of my fellow parishioners. I knew all these people intimately, and yet I was stunned by the pattern that I saw: The most vocal, liberal and politically oriented members of the parish, even if they were in positions of leadership, gave almost nothing, while the most hidebound conservatives, even if they were unhappy with what was going on, gave much.

These two anecdotes convey, in a nutshell, the chief insight of “Who Really Cares.”

By consulting a wide range of metrics, ranging from rates of charitable giving to hours of volunteer work donated, Mr. Brooks concludes that four distinct forces appear to have primary responsibility for making people behave charitably: religion, skepticism about the government’s role in economic life, strong families and personal entrepreneurship. Those Americans who have all four, or at least three, are much more likely to behave charitably than those who do not.

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