Sunday, November 19, 2006

Are conservatives more generous? Devil, meet details

A while back, a study came out of a Massachusetts philanthropy organization purporting to show that red states were more generous than blue states. While the analysis seemed convincing at first glance, once the methodology was out in the open it became clear that it was deeply flawed. The best take down of the study was this post at Just One Minute.

Tom Maguire now points us to another study purporting to show that conservatives are more generous than liberals. And the devil may be in the details yet again.

Two points on which the analysis may get slippery: first, the definition of conservative. The reviews already note that the study's author seems to define conservative fairly narrowly (nuclear family, regular practicioner of relion - that "regular" may turn out to be important, as it could mean he's only talking about those people that attend church every single week. And that brings me to the next point.....).

Second, how is generosity being defined? Since he seems to be talking about church going conservatives, a substantial portion of the giving being factored into the analysis could very well be tithing. Tithing is, legally speaking, charitible giving, but the point of the study isn't to demonstrate that the church going conservatives get more itemized deductions, but that their actions are morally commendable, and moreso than liberals. So is tithing as morally commendable as giving to, say, a soup kitchen? I would argue that it isn't. Christians that give to the church of their choice derive a benefit from it. Without that tithing, the church of their choice would be out of business. Since church goers aren't coerced into going church, but go because they want to go (critiques of religion as gunmen writ large notwithstanding), it's clear that church goers do derive a benefit from supporting their church.

It could be countered that, while tithing does support the church, churches do have a social mission. However, a fairly small amount of the amount tithed actually goes to charitible activities. I've found that it's rare to find a church that devotes more than 20% of its expenditures in a given year to bona fide charitible activities (and the majority far less), with everything else going to overhead and expenses for the worship services. If any other charity had that kind of ratio of charitible spending to non-charitible spending, they'd be under investigation by the IRS for being a sham charity. Tithing, then, functions more like morally neutral dues than it does morally commendable charitible contribution