Anyone traveling to Europe this summer will surely marvel at how different it is from the United States¯and how Europeans have trouble understanding the difference. “Individualists,” they call Americans, but the facts show far more personal social concern in the United States.

Here’s an example: In Europe, many leave philanthropy to the state. For Americans, the personal element¯in giving, volunteering, and philanthropy¯form an indispensable principle of democracy. According to this principle, people who do not want to depend on the state for all of their needs and wants must seek another source of funds. The best source¯the most reliable source¯derives from the tradition of reasoned giving. A free people must be able to organize themselves to finance sets of activities that are conducted independently from the state. A wise state supports this tendency by allowing givers to subtract their gifts from their reported income, thus lowering their income taxes by that amount.

To establish these private institutions of independent social activity, individuals need the habit of association. They know that dependence on the state breeds the spirit of dependency. They wish to be independent and free. Therefore, they need to find a way to raise funds which they do not want to solicit from the state.

In the United States, they do this by instructing all those who achieve financial success, however modest, to contribute funds on a regular basis to good and worthy causes, as chosen by free citizens apart from the state. Most Americans have been taught to feel a keen obligation to contribute to the common good. It is their way of paying back, in gratitude, for the blessings of liberty¯their way of investing in the nation’s future so that their children will continue to receive the same blessings they did, thanks to the giving of earlier generations.

No society has depended as much on personal giving, even for large institutional needs, as the United States. Most of our parish churches and even most of our greatest universities have been built thanks to private giving. Pope Benedict XVI has called attention to this admirable practice, and encourages other nations to study it. As Professor Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University and the American Enterprise Institute has written:

No developed country approaches American giving. For example, in 1995 (the most recent year for which data are available), Americans gave, per capita, three and a half times as much to causes and charities as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. Similarly, in 1998, Americans were 15 percent more likely to volunteer their time than the Dutch, 21 percent more likely than the Swiss, and 32 percent more likely than the Germans. These differences are not attributable to demographic characteristics such as education, income, age, sex, or marital status. On the contrary, if we look at two people who are identical in all these ways except that one is European and the other American, the probability is still far lower that the European will volunteer than the American.

Brooks has uncovered other fascinating findings. In 2000, the Americans who attended a house of worship at least once a week were 25 percent more likely to give charitably than those who participated in a religious service less frequently or participated in no religion at all. Further, religious people donated nearly four times more in dollars per year than secularists. And religious persons were 23 percent more likely to volunteer their time.

Interestingly, households headed by a conservative gave 30 percent more dollars to charity in 2000 than households headed by a liberal, though liberal-headed households tend to have higher incomes. Both these facts¯the higher income of leftists, and the greater giving by conservatives¯run counter to the mythology that the left holds in both Europe and the United States.

Overall, Americans give hundreds of billions of dollars of their own money every year to universities, research institutions, clinics, private schools, churches, and thousands of private charities (both local and international). In 2006, Americans donated just over $295 billion dollars to charitable causes: about $223 billion in individual giving outright, $36 billion through philanthropic foundations, $22 billion through individual bequests at death, and $13 billion through business corporations. Since there are approximately 226 million adult Americans, this rate of private giving amounts to, on average, $1,300 per adult per year.

Developing this sense of responsibility in all citizens takes emphasis in churches, schools, media of communication, and specialized journals on philanthropy. It also requires laws and other actions by government to make incentives universally available through tax deductions; dollars given to recognized philanthropies are not taxable.

The origins of this obligation lie in the biblical prescription of tithing¯the Judeo-Christian tradition to give to charity a percentage of their income: whatever portion they judge is, in their circumstances, pleasing to God. Civic leaders emphasize the same habit of personal giving for the betterment of civil society, and as a necessary precondition of the common good.

References:

A Nation of Givers ,” by Arthur C. Brooks, The American , March 10, 2008

Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism by Arthur C. Brooks

Articles by Michael Novak

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