Wednesday, December 24, 2008
An op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff in the NY Times created a bit of a stir by citing evidence that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. As usual, however, there are lies, damned lies and statistics (or as my colleague Tom Ulen - an economist - once remarked, "give me the data and I'll take it to the basement and torture it until it tells the truth.") Yes, some surveys show that self-identified conservatives give more to charity than self-identified liberals (Kristoff's article cites his sources). But if you exclude giving to churches, it turns out that liberals give more.
Which prompted Ezra Klein to opine that so-called donations to churches are really nothing more than membership fees and hence should not be counted as charity. Well, maybe so - in fact, most donations to churches end up serving the church population - they largely are used to support services and capital expenditures for the congregation. But this is an argument that probably proves too much. I regularly donate to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. Why? Well, partly its to make sure that Krannert keeps bringing in the superb performers that I like to hear and buy tickets to. So is my donation to Krannert really "charity" or simply a self-serving, self-imposed fee to make sure that I continue to get services that I value? Is the $20 "suggested" donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art really a donation or an admission fee?
This argument is not new, of course. One of the central questions that bedevils tax policy and nonprofit governance is what, exactly, constitutes "charity." Some would say that the only thing that should count as charity is redistribution: giving money to help the poor. But Western civilization has long recognized the arts as part of the charitable basket: museums, symphony orchestras, etc. So it seems to me that if you want to start picking on churches, you've got a lot of 'splaining to do when it comes to other kinds of charities . . . I don't think you can call donations to churches "membership fees" without recognizing that a lot of what we classify as philanthropy is self-serving in some way.