The virtues and vices of America take up a disproportionate amount of the political discussion by non-Americans. This is probably because America runs the world, but also perhaps partly because America did embark on a “wacky” experiment with free-markets and limited government. While the last century has seen America embrace more mainstream social-democratic government, they continue to be held up both by supporters and detractors of the free-market as an important example.
There is plenty of reasons for people to complain about America. And unlike some of the pro-Americans, I think it is fair and appropriate to complain about the vices of America because it is effectively the centre of the world and an important example for other countries.
But it’s worth remembering some of the virtues of America. And one virtue in particular is their generosity. According to Giving USA, in 2007 Americans gave $306 billion to charity, which is a 1% increase (inflation adjusted) over 2006. On average, this is about 2.3% of disposable income.
About 75% of this comes from individuals, and about half of that went to religious charities. An increased proportion of the money has been directed to international aid, environmental and human-services groups. Donations to international charities rose the most (an increase of about 13 percent).
Americans (as distinct from the American government) are the most generous givers in the world, with charity taking up 1.7 percent of GDP. Interestingly, Great Britain is second (0.73 percent of GDP).
Free-market advocates make the point that government charity has crowded out private charity. Consequently, it is safe to assume that private charity would increase if there was a smaller government. The benefits of this are significant, because private charity tends to be targetted better, run more efficiently, more innovative, and helps to bring people together and build a sense of community.
I believe that the private charity sector is of vital importance to building a better world. I think the nature of the free-market is that it creates sufficient wealth so that people divert more of their thoughts and resources towards building civil society. And I think that the long-term consequence of this dynamic would be to build a world that might look similar to what many leftists hope for. Unfortunately, I think this sector is being undermined and devalued by a system that concentrates on government hand-outs.
Maintaining a vibrant private civil society is vital for a free world. And I think Americans deserve credit for the role they are playing in keeping that tradition alive.