It's easy to attribute cynical motives to givers. Having been surprised to read that Dick and Lynn Cheney gave 78% of their income away in 2005, I mentioned the figure to several friends and family members, resulting in much sputtering.Do we give because of social pressure or because of the law? In the end it doesn't really matter.
Since it struck them as impossible that the Dark Lord himself could give so much to charity out of, well, charity, they groped for other explanations--and quickly hit upon the tax break.
I don't know about the Cheneys, but the tax break can't account for most American giving. After all, you still have less money after your donation than you did before--depending on what you earn, the hit to your pocket book is at least 65% of the dollar figure you gave, and more if you're not in the top income bracket. (And while most Americans give to charity, most don't itemize their tax deductions, which would be required to take advantage of the break.)
Indeed, America has a culture of giving that goes far beyond tax breaks. While the wealthiest citizens give the most in sheer dollar amounts--the top 10% accounting for at least a quarter of giving, according to Arthur C. Brooks--it's in fact low-income employed Americans who give the highest portion of their income, or 4.5%.
The other cynical motive often attributed to givers is that they are building monuments to themselves: They desire to be remembered. But I can't see how this kind of self-interested giving is a bad thing. In some cultures, tradition dictates that the wealthy extend lavish hospitality in exchange for respect; this has the benefit of spreading food and resources around.
In America, the rich seek to gain respect and admiration through philanthropy; this, too, has social benefits regardless of the givers' motives. A child getting an education at the Mary Smith Elementary School couldn't care less why she endowed it. To use a real world example, if someone is cured of malaria as a result of Gates Foundation-funded research, what does it matter what Bill Gates' motives were?
In the end I don't think Americans are more generous in their hearts than other people, nor that they have more cynical motives than anyone else. They are responding, rather, to their culture.
For all its polyglot shifting, U.S. culture is unique when it comes to a belief in philanthropy. It's a value that may be rooted in Christian tithing, but has spread to the secular world. Maybe it's a recognition that with individual freedom comes responsibility, too.
In philanthropy in America, public morality plays its proper role: causing members to do what's good for the group, through expectation and social pressure rather than the law.
The American impulse toward charitable giving is important though. When the excrement hits the wind creating device anywhere in the world, the outpouring of assistance from private groups like Catholic Charities or even the mismanaged Red Cross, is staggering. That doesn't even account for the giving that goes unnoticed and unquantified from individuals who suddenly respond with brilliant idea and effort in a one-time burst of giving.
While people may wonder why Americans give more than other nations, perhaps their curiousity should be saved for this question: What if Americans didn't give on the scale they do? How much more suffering would there be?