The theme that most seemed to rouse the enthusiasm of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was that we are all responsible for one another -- and that Republicans don't want to help the poor, the sick and the helpless.
All of us should be on guard against beliefs that flatter ourselves. At the very least, we should check such beliefs against facts.
Yet the notion that people who prefer economic decisions to be made by individuals in the market are not as compassionate as people who prefer those decisions to be made collectively by politicians is seldom even thought of as a belief that should be checked against facts.
Nor is this notion confined to Democrats in America today. Belief in the superior compassion of the political left is a worldwide phenomenon that goes back at least as far as the 18th century. But in all that time, and in all those places, there has been little, if any, effort on the left to check this crucial assumption against facts.
When an empirical study of the actual behavior of American conservatives and liberals was published in 2006, it turned out that conservatives donated a larger amount of money, and a higher percentage of their incomes (which were slightly lower than liberal incomes) to philanthropic activities.
Conservatives also donated more of their time to philanthropic activities and donated far more blood than liberals. What is most remarkable about this study are not just its results. What is even more remarkable is how long it took before anyone even bothered to ask the questions. It was just assumed, for centuries, that the left was more compassionate.
Ronald Reagan donated a higher percentage of his income to charitable activities than did either Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ted Kennedy. Being willing to donate the taxpayers' money is not the same as being willing to put your own money where your mouth is.
Milton Friedman pointed out that the heyday of free market capitalism in the 19th century was a period of an unprecedented rise in philanthropic activity. Going even further back in time, in the 18th century Adam Smith, the patron saint of free market economics, was discovered from records examined after his death to have privately made large charitable donations, far beyond what might have been expected from someone of his income level.
Helping those who have been struck by unforeseeable misfortunes is fundamentally different from making dependency a way of life.