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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 1

Lower taxes, higher giving

“Conservative voters tend to be more selfish,” a socialist friend recently told me. In broad terms the allegation is that fiscal conservatives, those who support lower taxes and less government intervention and redistribution, do so for their own benefit. The hard-hearted caricature of someone who has no personal need for welfare spending, and so wants to pay as little as possible towards it, is a popular stereotype on the Left. But is that true? I wanted to test the hypothesis against verifiable data.

Of course, there are many reasons besides avarice for opposing government welfare. It is inefficient – not just because it is administered by an often-dysfunctional bureaucracy, but also because politicians regularly fail to direct money where it is most needed. Government spending programmes can create perverse incentives, discouraging people from working, encouraging family break-up, and propelling themselves forward by their own inertia.

But stereotypes are not proved or disproved by economics or philosophy. What I wanted to see was how people actually behave. Does a belief in lower taxes and smaller government stem from greed, or does it encourage people to take private action to help others, rather than relying on the government? Do supporters of low taxes give more money to, and get more involved in, charities? By contrast, do socialists and other supporters of high taxes and government intervention personally assist others, or do they substitute claims of moral superiority and demands for wealth redistribution for personal philanthropy? 

Abundant evidence from the United States shows that conservatives support their belief in private charity with their own time and money, while some socialists seem to regard charities as an inappropriate rival to the state. Arthur Brooks, in Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, discovered that conservatives give vastly more to charity than statists, despite having lower incomes. That holds true at the community level, as well. Of the 25 states that give above-average donations to charity, 24 vote Republican.

It isn’t just about money. Peter Schweizer in his book Makers and Takers found that conservatives are one-and-a-half times more likely to volunteer at a charity (27 percent vs. 19 percent), and nearly three times as likely to believe it is important to “get happiness from putting others’ needs ahead of their own” (55 percent vs. 20 percent). Conservatives are even more likely to give blood than left-wingers.

But those data come from the U.S. Do they reflect American exceptionalism, perhaps because of the strong influence of the “Religious Right”? (It should be noted that Brooks found conservatives still give more to charity when all religious donations are excluded.) Do other countries display the same tendencies? 

There is certainly one difference between the U.S. and the UK: Whereas there is plenty of American research into correlations between charitable giving and political beliefs, there is almost none in Great Britain. The Charities Aid Foundation, which provides administrative services to other charities, publishes an annual “Giving Report” that delves deeply into the demographics of charitable donors, comparing them by age, sex, region – virtually everything but political views. There is only one brief paragraph in its 2017 report on the issue, with the unsurprising news that “those who voted for the Green Party … are significantly more likely to have given to conservation charities” and “those who voted for UKIP [the party that spearheaded Brexit] … are significantly less likely than any other party to have given to overseas aid.” Interestingly, the charity must have collected political data but not published anything on how they correlate with overall levels of charitable giving.

However, there is one study on how political views affect practical philanthropy in Great Britain. The owners of the online charity fundraising platform JustGiving worked with a group of universities to survey users of their British website, which is used by a wide range of charities and donors.

In line with the American experience, this survey found that the biggest political group amongst those who donated to charity through the JustGiving website were Conservative voters. Among those who expressed a political viewpoint, 34 percent of JustGiving’s donors were Conservatives and 32 percent supported the Labour Party. This was at a time when Labour was comfortably ahead in opinion polls, meaning that Conservatives were, proportionately, noticeably more likely to support charities than Labour supporters.

Overall, that makes Conservative voters proportionately more likely to give to charity than Labour voters. At the time (2010 to 2011), some 41 percent of the population supported the Labour Party, but they made up only 32 percent of donors to charity. In contrast, Conservatives at the time made up 37 percent of voters and 34 percent of donors, roughly in proportion. (The level of party support is based on 345 published opinion polls from the UK Polling Report website, over the same time period as the JustGiving survey.) If anything, this probably underestimates Conservatives’ charitable donations. As an online donation platform, JustGiving likely serves a younger demographic than donors in general, and young people are more likely to be left-wing.

Not that Conservatives rank highest proportionately. Some 22 percent of donors were Liberal Democrats at a time when only 11 percent of the population supported the party. However, the Liberal Democrats broadly favour the free market. Then-leader Nick Clegg was in a coalition with former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and backed the “Big Society” initiative, which was designed to “lift the burden of bureaucracy,” “empower communities to do things their own way,” and “diversify the supply of public services.” So, the principle holds.

As with Americans, UK citizens on “the Right” are more likely to give to charity than those on “the Left.” This seems to be an international trend, which undercuts the claim that conservatives are selfish. Those who advocate a basically free-market philosophy support private charity initiatives more than those who accept socialist tax-and-spend policies and wealth redistribution.

Donors’ motivations also prove illuminating. By far the two most common reasons they gave the JustGiving survey for choosing to donate to a charity were:

  •  “the cause and/or mission of the charity” – 79.1 percent said that this was “very important,” and almost all donors rated it as important (98.4 percent); and
  • “a sense that my money will be used efficiently and effectively” – 68.3 percent saw this as “very important,” and again nearly all donors saw this as important (96.7 percent).

In contrast, the urgent “emergency” appeals made by some charities do not seem to resonate with donors:

  • Only a third (33.4 percent) saw the fact that “the charity urgently needs funds (e.g., after a disaster)” as a “very important” reason to give;
  • About a third (32.5 percent) saw being “personally affected by a cause” as a “very important” reason to give; and
  • Barely a tenth (10.6 percent) saw media “coverage of a specific charity or cause” as a very important motivator.

This means that those who support fiscally conservative, tax-cutting political parties – and believe that private initiatives are a better way to help those in need than taxpayer-funded welfare programmes – are more likely to give to charity. And it indicates that the main motivations of people who donate are the desire to choose where their money goes, and to know that it will be used efficiently. This is in stark contrast to government spending, which is often misdirected by politicians and squandered by bureaucrats.

Rather than the stereotype of selfishness, it seems that, where it actually matters, conservatives and those who want a smaller government actually follow through on their beliefs of funding philanthropy outside government. On the other hand, statists – despite claiming that they support increased government action to help the poor – are noticeably less likely to take personal initiative to help others. For them, supporting the government seems to replace concrete action.

This is only one survey in the UK, but it correlates with the much more abundant data from across the transatlantic sphere, especially in the United States. Conservatives are not selfish; they are personally generous. 

Looking at the wider picture, markets are often a better solution to poverty than government spending; the biggest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen is the billion people lifted out of absolute poverty by the opportunities offered by globalisation. That has taken place overwhelmingly in countries that have embraced global markets and, notably, not among the main recipients of government-to-government aid.

For those of us who wish to help others, including Christians following the Bible’s injunction to love our neighbour, it is perfectly rational to reject taxation and government spending in favour of other methods. Many private charitable initiatives deliver better results than the government – and solve problems caused by the government. For example, UK food banks alleviate delays caused by the government’s bureaucratic welfare system.

Therefore, people who are broadly conservative have both philosophical and practical reasons to support charities, whether they are motivated by belief in the efficiency of the free market, love of Burke’s “little platoons,” or the Sermon on the Mount. And more to the point, they act on their convictions. It is worthwhile both to note the action and to spread the philosophical, theological, and economic views that catalyze it.

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Richard Teather is a senior lecturer in tax law at Bournemouth University. His personal website is