Today's post is by Professor Arthur Brooks (pictured here), director of the non-profit studies program at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Arthur has been a fervent supporter of the No Impact experiment and a great personal morale booster since No Impact started. His ideas on the unnecessary cleft between individual and collective action have helped form the underlying philosophy of the No Impact experiment (see my New York Times OpEd). His thoughts on charitable giving have led to my tithing ten percent of my gross income, both to environmental and non-environmental charities, as an element of the No Impact experiment--part of the positive impact that will counteract what negative impact I can't eradicate.
Recently, Colin and I have had a series of great conversations about how the ideas of "no impact" tie collective action to personal responsibility.
I think that one fair way to describe the main worldview difference between conservatives and liberal is the “unit of analysis” at which action is necessary to make progress in society. Generalizing greatly (and with appropriate apologies for doing so), conservatives often view society as a big bunch of individuals, and thus individual action as the right focus for our attention. In contrast, liberals are much more focused on the collective, often expressed through the actions of the state. For many on the left, implicitly if not explicitly, individual action is a futile focus for real social change.
I wrote a book last year called Who Really Cares, where I argued that conservatives tend to give more of their money to charity than liberals do. One major reason for this, I showed, was differing views on the role of the individual versus the collective: People who support government solutions to social problems tend to donate substantially less to charity than those who do not support government efforts. (For example, in 1996, people who believed the government should not take greater measures than at present to reduce income inequality gave, on average, about four times as much money to charity each year as those who believed the government should equalize incomes more.)
On the political right, my book has frequently been taken as evidence that conservatives, giving privately of their own resources, are more virtuous than liberals. On the left, I have heard over and over again that, despite my findings, liberals are actually far more caring because they are not content to assuage their own sense of duty with a private charity band-aid, but rather are looking for systemic solutions through laws, policies, and even by holding jobs that (they argue) are more socially-valuable than those usually held by conservatives. (Personally, I reject the claim that bankers are less socially valuable than teachers, but that's another matter.) Of course, these claims—right or wrong—reinforced the very patterns I had exposed in the book.
What does all this have to do with No Impact Man? At its root, the No Impact experiment examines how people with high collective ideals for the environment can bring their personal actions into harmony with those ideals. Giving to charity can do exactly the same thing. A belief in collective action (e.g. goverment income redistribution) doesn't have to displace private giving. On the contrary, private giving can make the private behavior of people committed to collective action -- even government action -- congruent with their political beliefs.