Charity makes you wealthier. It’s a statement that sounds good on the materialistic, self-gain level – if you give money away, more comes back to you and you’ll feel like a better person to boot.
But is that what charity is really about?
According to Arthur C. Brooks, writing in Portfolio, it is.
Mr Brooks, Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University, says “Emerging evidence—crunchy statistics from real data, not the mushy self-help stuff—supports the contention that giving stimulates prosperity, for both individuals and nations.
“Charity, it appears, can really make you rich.”
He goes on to argue that one of the reasons the United States is a wealthy nation is because “Americans donated nearly $300 billion to charity in 2006—more than the gross domestic product (the annualized value of goods and services produced within a nation) of all but 33 countries in the world”.
“People do give more when they become richer—research has shown that a 10 percent increase in income stimulates giving by about 7 percent—but people also grow wealthier when they give more.”
It sounds enticing, especially when the professor says that if you take two identical families and one gives away $100 a year more than the other, then it will end up $375 richer.
So, if I give away £50,000, then I’ll end up being £187,500 richer?
But Mr Brooks goes further, saying that giving money away actually benefits a nation’s gross domestic product, is a good investment for a country and “some might even go so far as to say that donating to charity is a patriotic act”.
The problem I have with this is not about the numbers, but the underlying philosophy behind the professor’s version of charity.
His philosophy equates charity with the giving of money in return for some form of financial gain in the not-so-distant future.
In other words, charity is a selfish act aimed at generating a financial return to the individual and the nation.
Oh, and by being seen to be charitable, you’re more likely to get a leadership position.
I suppose that explains much about the US, too.
The US gives a lot of money away, it’s the richest nation on Earth and it enjoys a leadership position. It doesn’t make it an altruistic and unselfish nation, though.
But are potential material returns and leadership positions really all that charity boils down to?
Or should it be more than giving money as an investment for a future return?
What’s wrong with being charitable for purely altruistic reasons? What’s wrong with giving with no other thought in mind that, “they need it more than I”?
What’s wrong with saying “I just want to make a difference?” What’s wrong with saying “I have enough, so I’ll give anything more”?
To my mind, those are far more important reasons for being charitable than reaping financial rewards.
What’s wrong with giving of yourself? Giving time? Giving services? Giving goods and possessions that you either have little need for, or that you can see someone has more need for than you?
These are far more meaningful acts of giving than parting with what to you may be little more than spare change.
In a philosophical sense, charity of this nature does generate a return but not a direct, personal financial one.
When you act altruistically by being charitable, you serve others by placing their interests above your own because it serves the greater good. If the nature of the whole improves, then it is a better environment in which you, the individual, can flourish.
Mr Brooks’ economic view of charity is a very narrow, materialistic and ultimately selfish subset of this broader ideal.
He says, “be charitable and give away money because it will make you and the country monetarily richer, which means you and the nation can have more material wealth”.
My take is “be charitable and give of yourself because it will make everyone spiritually and psychologically richer, which means we all have a supportive environment in which to flourish”.
But then, I’m not an economist.