The Mansion on the Hill, and Bono

From Mona Charen, in her brief sketch of Arthur C. Brooks.

The value that connects ownership and possessions to labor, hard work and one’s ambition is eroding.

The American work ethic can be eroded though, and will be, Brooks argues, by an expanding welfare state. It isn’t just that people who believe life to be unfair demand that governments “equalize” outcomes. It’s that once governments undertake to equalize things, people begin to believe that success is more a matter of luck than of hard work. A 2005 study of 29 countries found that where taxes are high and wealth is redistributed through social programs, people are much more likely to believe that success is a result of luck.

When government confiscates from some to give to others, the givers are affected. Or maybe they start out that way. Redistributionists are a lot less charitable than free-marketeers. A 1996 study found that people who disagreed that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” gave four times as much to charity as those who agreed. And those who disagreed “strongly” gave eleven times as much.

Charity aids the giver as well as the recipient. Teenagers who volunteered their time were far less likely five years later to report serious life problems than those who didn’t volunteer. Americans who donate to charities (time or money) are 43 percent more likely to describe themselves as happy compared with those who don’t. When the state expands and soaks up more and more of the helping opportunities for those in need, it creates “learned helplessness” among the needy and deprives others of the improving possibilities of charity and service.

Americans remain, for now, an aspirational people, less seduced by the politics of envy than Europeans are. But with every passing day, that spirit is being sapped by the government behemoth. Brooks relates a telling anecdote from the singer Bono:

In Ireland people have an interesting attitude to success; they look down on it. In America, you look up at . . . the mansion on the hill and say, “One day . . . that could be me.” In Ireland, they look up at the mansion on the hill and go, “One day I’m gonna get that bastard.”

That’s the spirit of the Democratic party. It’s the mode of President Obama’s demonization of “millionaires and billionaires.” If successful, Brooks warns, it will smother the greatest engine for prosperity — especially for the poor — in human history.


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  • Richard

    When the rules of the game are tilted to favor the house on the hill, the result will be, ‘one day I’m gonna get that guy’

  • Larry Barber

    Once more with the neoliberal myth that success, defined as getting filthy rich is just a matter of effort. If this were true then most African women would be millionaires. There are lots of people who work very hard, most of the poor included (you try making ends meet when you’re working for $10/hr.), but they certainly don’t get rich doing it. Getting rich is mainly a matter of being in the right place at the right time, having the right connections or parents, possibly having ethical issues, and yes, just plain old luck. Just as one example, who would have heard of Bill Gates today if Gary Kildall had been able to respond to IBM when they came calling instead of being out flying? But he was and IBM turned to Bill Gates to furnish the OS for their new “entry level” computers.

  • Ron Spross

    This kind of framing is wrong on so many levels, and should be, in my opinion, repugnant to Christian sensitivity. Property and ownership (in the American, as opposed to biblical, sense of the word) is the ultimate value. You get what you have because of your hard work and therefore what you have is yours and yours only and its disposition should be up to you solely. You have no responsibility to society; whatever you do in that regard becomes commendable charity. Since what you have by your work is yours to dispose of and since you have no responsibility to those around you taxation becomes confiscation. The individual is ultimate, those who aren’t successful have no one to blame but themselves, and the government (of the people and by the people, most of whom are failures and a drag on those of us who are successful) becomes the oppressor.

    “The value that connects ownership and possessions to labor, hard work and one’s ambition is eroding.” Don’t know if those are Scot’s words or merely his summary of Charen’s argument (although I think applying the word “argument” to her writing gives it far too much gravitas), but they are what one hears when a call is made to have those who prosper the most from our society to contribute more to its maintenance than they do. Maybe we need to have higher taxes BECAUSE the rich, through the current tax structure, are confiscating the inheritance of everyone else (that inheritance would be a country with an efficient infrastructure, a health system accessible to all, an educational system which provides a minimal opportunity to all who have ambition to succeed, regardless of the economic level into which they were born).

  • Rick

    “When government confiscates from some to give to others, the givers are affected. Or maybe they start out that way. Redistributionists are a lot less charitable than free-marketeers. A 1996 study found that people who disagreed that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” gave four times as much to charity as those who agreed. And those who disagreed “strongly” gave eleven times as much.”

    Interesting stat.

  • T

    I appreciate the studies that were mentioned, and even the anecdotal evidence. That said, the issue for me is not what statistics show about this or that attitude in this country or that. Nor is it about so-called traditional “American” vs. European attitudes and structures. These generalities are helpful, but in a very limited way. The things that matter to me are, on the one hand, the specific tax and spending structures as they work–collectively at the federal level at least–in actual application. When, for instance, we have the highest earners paying a lower percentage of their incomes than their middle class employees (as in Buffet and Romney’s case, for instance), the system is wrong, and that is just one example. There are many other provisions of the tax code that Dems love too that are just as problematic for other reasons. Recent tax history (say, the last 20 years at least) also matters.

    But the other thing that matters a great deal to me when it comes to “redistribution” and similar charity and welfare discussions is the question of what God was hoping to accomplish and maintain in Israel through the mandatory forms of “charity,” capital redistribution, and regular debt forgiveness in the policies he established for Israel. If we can begin to identify how these programs worked in their econonmy and why, we may be surprised on several levels, both by the wisdom and the economics.

    Brooks points to the bad attitudes that will or can develop from the vague “redisributionist” policies in other countries. Fair enough. The scriptures do point to the value of diligence in work and certainly the dangers of envy. But what about the bad attitudes that develop when attribute wealth to the virtue of the wealthy? Are the rich wealthy because of their own merit alone? Does not God’s grace deserve most of the credit? Does the widespread development of the attitude of “self-made-wealth” pose no societal danger? According to my scriptures and even modern research, riches have a powerful tendency to corrupt and create a sense of entitlement in the owner. Indeed, when I read the scriptures, I certainly hear the call to work and avoid sloth and envy, but I hear much more of the calls to share and of the tendency of the wealthy to serve and praise themselves, even in their “giving.” Further, while diligence is praised, the Bible calls the idea that “I earned my wealth” (as opposed to the idea it was given) very dangerous.

    So, while I’m grateful for Brooks’ points, I hope that Christians don’t just go along for the ride, cheering as they go. The Republicans aren’t doing any better at pursuing and promoting God’s economic values and wisdom and attitudes, IMO, than the Dems. In fact, in many ways, they’re worse.

  • Adam

    I must say that sitting in my cube reading this blog during working hours is considerably much more work than standing behind a cash register at McDonald’s. I think typing this out is making me sweat. I wish I could stand on my feet all day in the blistering sun picking produce. That would certainly be less effort.

    Ok, I’ll stop there.

    Effort does not equal wealth. That is a bald faced lie and it needs to stop. Here’s a fair system, the amount of money you get paid is directly proportional to the amount of calories you burn in a day. We’ll solve the obesity problem too.

  • Luke Allison

    One of the things that caused me to back off from attending Christian Leftist and Anarchist conventions was the amount of hatred and vitriol I saw. I will always be sympathetic towards the counter-culture, but skeptical towards lionization or demonization of any one viewpoint.

    The statistics showing that redistributionists are less charitable than free-marketeers is telling, and should be interacted with by those of us on the board who are disparaging the author’s viewpoint. That kind of statistic has been around for a while. Clearly there’s something to it. The myth of the stingy conservative and the generous liberal needs to be outed. I grew up with immensely generous conservative parents. They just happened to think their generosity was a precursor to something better in the eternal realm for the people they served. That was what they knew.

  • Richard

    Here’s my concerns with Brooks and folks that cite his conclusion:

    1) correlation is distinct from causation

    2) when he discounted religious giving (after all, who really considers paying for your church’s mortgage care for the ‘least of these’), religious/conservatives gave $88 more per year than irreligious/liberals to nonreligious causes – not a huge gap

    3) “philanthropy” is a broad category w/many different types of giving – it is not ‘charity’ exclusively. Giving to the music academies and symphonies that Mr. Brooks plays in is philanthropy but not necessarily charity or a replacement for federal safety nets (and btw, if you value the arts, gov’t grants are often crucial sources of funding since the majority of Americans would rather keep new weights in the football team’s weight room rather than keeping the after school arts programs around)

    4) all the conservatives that pat themselves on the back over this are celebrating some meager generosity differences: $2200 per year vs. $642; that $1800/person is not going to make up the difference when it comes to providing for the needy in our communities

    5) I lived in a country full of charities, missions organizations, relief organizations, churches, etc where the gov’t provided no investment into the people or structures – I’ll gladly choose our system that needs reform over no safety nets any day of the week; the number of folks starving here and dying of treatable illnesses are far lower

    6) two words: peer review… anyone ever seen one on these numbers or conclusions?

    7) These studies are only tracking what is given to formal organizations – the most direct forms of charity, giving directly to someone, aren’t tracked by charitable giving groups. Those on gov’t assistance tend to be very generous with their neighbors (to a fault and to the frustration of those of us working with them) but those stats aren’t tracked, and many folks in poverty tend to be in favor of gov’t assistance to the poor.

  • Joe Canner

    Leaving aside for the moment the actual arguments made by Brooks, it’s worth noting that he put himself through college (undergraduate and graduate school) while working as a professional french horn player and music teacher. So, while he certainly had to work hard to become a professional musician and he had to work hard to get his degrees, he was also extremely blessed to have college professor parents who paid for the music lessons and who instilled in him the value of a good education. This background puts him some ways ahead of the average person receiving government assistance and makes me less interested in hearing what he has to say on the this subject.

  • Kenton

    Love it, Scot!

    But it seems like the other commenters are making the point that Mr. Brooks has forgotten the words of John the Baptist as recorded in Luke’s gospel:

    “You who have no cloaks should take one from the one who has two.”

    Wait, let me go read that again…

  • T

    Since no one else has mentioned it, I will. Regarding this:

    “Redistributionists are a lot less charitable than free-marketeers. A 1996 study found that people who disagreed that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” gave four times as much to charity as those who agreed. And those who disagreed “strongly” gave eleven times as much.”

    I’m not a statistician, but even I know that it is (rightly) a mistake, a fallacy, to equate correlation with causation. Giving has a strong correlation with political conservativism and with anti-redistribution views specifically. But that doesn’t tell us–at all–that one has any causal relationship with the other. In fact, it seems more likely to me (which is common among correlations) that an independent 3rd (or 4th, or 5th) factor is driving both, probably conservative Christian faith being among them, which rightly encourages giving and generosity, but also is *currently* wed to the Republican Party for a variety of reasons.

  • John Mark

    I would never say “hard work equals wealth.” But I do know people who have worked, saved and now are wealthy by world standards. By American standards, no, but I’m talking about people who have several hundred thousand dollars in the bank, property, and have done all this without a college education. Sure, not everyone who works hard gets ‘rich’ but there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that even lower middle class people can be at least prepared for retirement if they are frugal. Some, especially in other economies, will work hard all their lives and never rise above poverty, it is true. But I believe that God’s promise to bless us if we are faithful to tithe counts for something, even in Haiti or Zimbabwe. Of course, I don’t think we are promised wealth, but that our needs will be met.
    I don’t see myself ever being rich, though I have worked as hard as any man; I don’t think God wants me to have a lot of money :). I believe the basic thrust of the article is right on…..there are people who are poor because they have made wrong choices, are addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or gambling, or poverty, and are seemingly trapped. I have worked with quite a few of them, as long as they were willing to work, that is.

  • Ernie

    John Mark said, “even lower middle class people can be at least prepared for retirement if they are frugal.”

    There is no denying that Social Security and Medicare benefits have lifted so many out of the poverty that the elderly often experience, and not just the poor and lower middle class.

  • JohnM

    Given the faith progressives seem to have in “a study found” it must be really disturbing when one finds something like this. 🙂

  • Tom F.

    There are a lot of things wrong with this article that others have pointed out.

    One I would zero in on is the “redistributionist” theme. I would agree with Brooks that straight taking from the rich and giving to the poor is likely to create resentment in the rich and dependency in the poor. Bad outcomes. Moderates and progressives shouldn’t get defensive at this point though. It was a Democratic president who reformed welfare, after all.

    Take the example of Christian development non-profits. There is a considerable part of their budgets that goes to direct aid, like food, clothing, and temporary shelter. But another large part of their budgets goes into community development, education, and other long-term investments. These investments seek to create the conditions where individuals can exercise their agency and dignity as human beings in order to move out of poverty. These long-term solutions don’t create dependency, but they depend on the interaction between individual initiative and improving community conditions.

    By analogy then, it makes sense that the government would seek to address poverty not by a simplistic redistribution of money (which ends up buying into the reductionistic hypothesis that poverty = lack of money), but by addressing the conditions that lead to outcomes of poverty.

    Far-right conservatives would love for the argument to be framed in “redistributionist” terms, because that implies that the only two choices are between taxing and redistributing the wealth to those with less money, or not addressing poverty at all. They have to frame the debate this way because they know most Americans will support the community investment (such as after-school programs, education, and infrastructure) that improves community conditions without being a handout.

    Community investment best integrates the American ideals of both individual effort and civic and community care for our citizens. Moderate conservatives and moderate liberals will probably still disagree about the exact way this looks. That’s fine and its probably healthy. I have little patience for these libertarian arguments where all social spending is inherently “redistributionist”. Phooey.

  • Tom F.

    Oh, and by the way, remember “compassionate conservatism” and the government partnering with faith-based programs that addressed local needs without a big government program? Is that “redistributionist”?

    Whoops, that was before the Republicans were taken over by libertarians. My mistake.

  • Joe Canner

    T #11: I had the same thought about correlation and causation and I think it’s quite possible that conservative Christianity is the intermediate variable. As Richard notes in #8 (point #2), giving to churches is a large portion of giving for Christians. My guess is that most churches allocate no more than 10% of their budget to benevolence, which means that Christians and/or churches still need to kick in a lot more to take away the need for government “redistribution”.

    Of course, churches are a significant employer in the US, so I guess that’s a form of redistribution all on its own….

  • Jon Altman

    I don’t know if it’s Brooks, Charen or Scot, but the characterization of President Obama and his policies is inaccurate to such a degree that it could be called a deliberate lie.

  • kerry

    The notion that all wealth is self created by hard work ignores a few simple realities. Some people are born with disadvantages that are no matter of choice, such as average or low IQ, significant health problems or mental illness.

    If we are born with a good intellect, good mental health and good physical health, perhaps our first response ought to be gratitude, rather than condemnation of those much less fortunate

    The rags to riches stories that America loves to tell usually involve people of unusually high intelligence for the circumstances in which they were raised.


    This blog from Richard Beck provides a nice counter point to the anti-entitlement sentiment in this article.

    I would like to know the average income of those people who are giving 11 times more to charities. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess they live on more than 50K/year 🙂

  • John Mark

    Ernie #13.
    I will be happy to take my government ‘benefits’ when they come; but then again, I have made a lot of poor choices in my life, and spent years, literally in dead end jobs. I don’t argue for a moment that SS and Medicare has saved some, perhaps many elderly from poverty–I may be one of them, though I plan to work as long as I can.
    I differentiate between SS because I have paid into it, perhaps not as much I will get from it (one never really knows in advance) and Medicare, which I and my employers have paid into; it is very likely that like any ‘insurance’ plan you might get far more in benefits than you have paid in…I have also been on the dole in the past for a number of other government programs….WIC, HEAP, and some others. But I still insist that working hard has its benefits, even if you never make it to millionaire status.

  • Josh T.

    “…people who disagreed that “government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,” gave four times as much to charity as those who agreed. And those who disagreed “strongly” gave eleven times as much…”

    Okay, that’s fine, but let’s define what we’re talking about. Do these statistics take into account actual differences in the givers’ income? In other words, what is the result when we’re dealing with percentages instead of (I’m guessing here) dollar amounts?