JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Generosity and freedom go together

Published 10:08 am Friday, December 17, 2021

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In places where governments are smaller, taxes are lower, regulations are lighter and property rights are more secure, people tend to be more generous, trustful and tolerant. Although progressives may find this proposition hard to accept, there’s an ever-increasing stack of empirical evidence to support it.

John Hood

Consider a recent study published in The Independent Review. Comparing the scores of 145 countries on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index to an index of private giving and volunteering, authors Lawrence McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park found a strongly positive relationship. By itself, the freedom index explained 20 percent of the variance in charitable giving. Other studies by Swedish economists Niclas Berggren and Therese Nilsson show powerful connections between economic freedom and measures of social trust, mutual respect and tolerance.

To discover a correlation, however, is not necessarily to determine which way the causal arrows point. For example, there is already an extensive literature showing that freer economies tend to grow faster. Perhaps as free-market policies help places grow wealthier, their residents become more charitable. Or perhaps as places grow wealthier for other reasons, such as achieving high levels of education and innovation, they both become more charitable and more likely to adopt freedom-enhancing policies.

Still another possibility is that places where civil society is already “thick,” where healthy families and other private institutions help their residents build character and find meaning, citizens tend to be both more economically productive and more resistant to expansive government.

It’s an interesting social-science puzzle. But for my colleagues and I at the John William Pope Foundation, it requires no ultimate solution. For us, it’s enough to know that freedom, human development, compassion and other important values are associated with each other. They form a virtuous circle. And over the past 35 years, the Pope Foundation has donated more than $200 million to nonprofits found at every point on that circle, from humanitarian relief and civic vitality to think tanks and educational institutions.

Our giving reflects the philosophy of our co-founder, retail pioneer John Pope. “Self-reliance, self-confidence, and integrity are the keys to success,” he said. “Endurance is also critical, and the responsibility for success lies on the shoulders of the individual.” Our virtuous-circle approach to philanthropy also reflects the wisdom of America’s Founders, whose fierce defense of freedom came not just from classical learning and Enlightenment principles but also from practical experience.

As George Washington put it, “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” But neither Washington nor his colleagues believed liberty was an all-encompassing good. They recognized — as have prudent conservators of America’s classical-liberal revolution ever since — that it will always prove fleeting unless it’s bundled with the complementary good of virtue.

Of course, the two values can also be in tension. When government respects our freedom to seek virtue, we may instead practice vice. Human beings are inherently flawed creatures vulnerable to temptations. Yielding to them can create the very adverse consequences for ourselves and others — addiction, corruption, violence, child abuse and neglect — that so often lead to demands for more government.

That’s why building and maintaining strong social institutions are so important. When we exercise our personal freedom within dense networks of families and other associations, we make better choices. We’re nudged in the right direction by words loving or stern, by glances approving or reproachful, by examples inspiring or cautionary.

When the Pope Foundation invests in life-changing programs to combat poverty, illiteracy, addiction and homelessness, we help to create the conditions most likely to preserve freedom. And when we invest in thinkers, communicators, and institutions that strengthen the intellectual and moral case for freedom, we make it possible for more individuals to pursue their passions, live their best lives, and build virtue — including, as it happens, the virtue of charity itself.

John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation and an author.