Is Bleeding Heart Liberalism Psychologically Unhealthy?

One obvious question is whether there is anything systematically different about the way American liberals and conservatives support their words with personal giving.  Let’s take a look at the study which is referenced by blog articles and by the newspaper article by Nicholas Kristol.

According to the referenced author, Arthur Brooks, a self-acknowledged liberal, who is an economist at Baylor University, there are systematic differences.  Brooks says he “grew up in an intact, religious, politically liberal family where giving was important” (p. 12), seems not to be interested in bashing American liberals, though that is how his conclusions will inevitably be seen by some.  The research presented finds that American liberals are more selfish than American conservatives when measured by the share of their income given in charity and the amount of volunteering they do.  (from one review of Brooks’ book)

Brooks’ book, “Who Really Cares” (reference below)  has four main messages:

  • The four forces in American life primarily responsible for making people charitable are “religion, skepticism about the government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism” (p. 11).
  • “Conservative principles are most congenial to the four forces of charity” (p. 12).
  • “Liberals, who often claim to care more about others than conservatives do, are personally less charitable” (p. 70)
  • “For many people, the desire to donate other people’s money displaces the act of giving one’s own” (p. 55).

Nicholas Kristol in “Bleeding Heart Tightwads” comments about liberals in the New York Times (link below), “Come on liberals, redeem yourselves, and put your wallets where your hearts are.”

“The problem is this: We liberals are personally stingy.”

“Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.”

Here are additional comments on Brooks’ book from a conservative perspective, to contrast with liberal Nicholas Kristol.

On the question in the blog article below “Who’s More Charitable:” (below) which David Coffey provided: How is giving related to wealth? here is one study:

‎”The richest Americans give a greater share of their income to charities than low- and middle-income Americans do, but the mix of beneficiaries is decidedly different, according to congressional testimony from Frank J. Sammartino, the assistant director for tax analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.”

“Continued dependence on [government support] induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” ~ President Franklin Roosevelt.

I arrive at the same conclusion Harris Hall has discussed many times in his email thread.  I put it this way:  bleeding heart liberals try to relieve their guilt by spending other people’s money by means of politics and the courts.

But, I don’t think this transference of guilt actually works, or at least I have never understood how it works.  I am not so cynical as to believe that these bleeding heart liberals actually want the result that Roosevelt describes.  That result would only make the bleeding heart liberal even more guilty, and if continued, eventually pathological.  Taking private property (wealth) from one group via government expropriation and distributing it to another group resulting in spiritual and moral disintegration is sinister, and does not relieve guilt until one loses contact with reality.


Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism—America’s Charity Divide, Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, Arthur C. Brooks. 2006.New York: Basic Books. ISBN: 13–978–0–465–00821–6

Who’s More Charitable – Liberals or Conservatives?

By adaptivecomplexity

Created Dec 21 2008 – 8:58pm

To be honest, I don’t really care about the answer to this question. But read this Kristof NY Times column, and see if you’re convinced of the answer. It’s time to practice your critical thinking skills – questions you should ask about the claims presented in this column are exactly the sorts of questions you should ask when you read a press report about any statistics-based study, especially medical research.

Here is the basic result Kristof is talking about:

Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

Rather than taking that at face value, several questions should immediately pop into your mind:

1. Is this because more conservatives go to church, and give moeny to their church? For example, Mormons (who tend to be conservative), give 10% of their income to one of the wealthiest churches on the face of the planet, and one which does considerably less humanitarian work around than many churches (liberal and conservative) with much less wealth. Most of us wouldn’t count everything you give to your church as “giving to charity,” so you should ask yourself if the studies Kristof talks about take church giving into account.

And in fact, Kristof notes that “According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do.”

But maybe that’s because conservatives are already giving a big chunk of change to their church (which may really go to substantial charitable work, and not just to the general operating expenses of the church), so there is less money left over to give to non-religious charities. Thus excluding “donations to all religious organizations” may not be a fair comparison either.

2. Are conservatives richer, and thus able to give more to charity? Kristof notes that “measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes,” but we’re given no information on how giving relates to wealth. When I’m spending 80% of my income on basics like food, housing, and transportation, I have less money to give as a percentage of my income. If I only spend 30% on the basics, I’m free to give a larger chunk to charity.

3. How much is related to say, issues of urban vs. rural environments, instead of liberal/conservative? One claim is “People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often.” Is that because there are more volunteer opportunities in smaller towns than in big cities? I grew up outside of the fairly small city of Ithaca, NY. I volunteered for the local fire department there, something I could never do now in St. Louis because the fire department is all professional.

There are obviously more questions to ask, and it’s not clear at all, at least from the newspaper story, what we should really believe. It may very well be that, once you control for all of the confounding factors, liberals really are stingier. At least as Americans we’re giving 11 times more of our GNP to charity than the French, as Kristof notes.

But wait – the French pay a lot more in taxes to provide many services which are provided by charities in the US. So who really is more generous?

I’m not taking a stand on what the right answer is to any of these comparisons.  The lesson here is, don’t just believe the headline for any study. Learn to ask the right questions.

ION Publications LLC


Bleeding Heart Tightwads, by Nicholas Kristol.  New York Times.

About budbromley

Bud is a retired life sciences executive. Bud's entrepreneurial leadership exceeded three decades. He was the senior business development, marketing and sales executive at four public corporations, each company a supplier of analytical and life sciences instrumentation, software, consumables and service. Prior to those positions, his 19 year career in Hewlett-Packard Company's Analytical Products Group included worldwide sales and marketing responsibility for Bioscience Products, Global Accounts and the International Olympic Committee, as well as international management assignments based in Japan and Latin America. Bud has visited and worked in more than 65 countries and lived and worked in 3 countries.
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