In recent years, it’s become cool among conservatives to hate on It’s a Wonderful Life. There are arguments made that the film is anti-capitalist, (the big businessman is the bad guy so it must be anti-capitalist). There are arguments made that Capra’s classic is akin to New Deal propaganda in its setting. I’d argue that both of these statements are false.
It’s a Wonderful Life provides us with a picture of life in the fictional Bedford Falls. In this town we have two different citizens who are doing two different things. One is a greedy banker named Potter. The other is a selfless small businessman named George Bailey who runs a Savings and Loans business. Potter is clearly painted as the villain in this film. Does the big banker being a villain automatically make it anti-capitalist? Certainly not. Bailey was, in effect, a banker as well. In many ways, this film is a tale of two bankers.
One is in it for money first and foremost. He does not always put his customers first and, frankly, hates having competition. When he sees competition in the form of Bailey’s Savings and Loan due to its exemplary customer service model, he tries to buy them out. George Bailey refuses. When that fails, he eventually steals their money and threatens to get George arrested under knowingly false pretenses. If Potter is intended to symbolize capitalism, he does a poor job. Capitalism isn’t merely heartless money grabbing any way you can. Capitalism isn’t a system which is designed to allow for theft and criminal behavior. It is a system of freedom that allows for businesses to chose how they are to run their business. Potter is free to run his business his way, as a horrible landlord and a banker focused exclusively on money instead of his customers. There’s a reason he loses business to Bailey.
Now, let’s go back to Bailey who some feel is the reason this is so left-wing. Let’s ask the most important question first – at what point in the film did the government ever have a role in helping the community in It’s a Wonderful Life? If it’s left wing, shouldn’t the hero be government bureaucrats coming at the last minute to bail people out and to save the day? But no, our main character is a small businessman who has been putting his blood, sweat, and tears into making his business work. He re-built and kept afloat a for-profit business that he uses to help the community. Does he lose money at times? Yes. Can he still afford to keep his family fed? You bet. Does he get a government bailout to ensure this continues working? No. He takes responsibility for his own business. He deals with the finances. He gets a loan from a bigger bank if he needs it. He doesn’t get a bailout from the government, he does it himself. How is that not an example of a business succeeding under capitalism? Sure, it’s not the dream some have for themselves of making it big or becoming exceptionally wealthy, but he’s a small business owner who’s making a difference in his community without the help of government assistance. How is that anti-capitalist?
Can a small business like Bailey Savings and Loan survive today under the current climate? I’d say not. As current left-wing legislation continues to take its toll on small businesses, it becomes harder and harder for them to succeed. Bailey succeeding requires a capitalist economic model with minimal government intervention allowing him to have the freedom to spend his money as he choses. He can help the community, or he can ignore it. He can be a slumlord like Potter or he can help others buy their own homes on terms he decides individually with each customer. He’s a small business owner making his mark on the community. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. We need more George Bailey’s in the world who are focused on family and willing to give up profit for the sake of their fellow man. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get a paycheck. That does mean that he puts everything into his business. Doesn’t every small business owner have a similar story? Don’t many small business owners across this nation have stories about where they chose to help their business instead of helping themselves because they believed in their business? Why is Bailey’s story of doing just that anti-capitalist? Short answer: it isn’t. Keith Miller of Mere Orthodoxy wrote in a great debate piece with his friend Chris Schaefer on the film:
On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.
Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?
And he’s right.
Now, some of the anti-capitalist anger is stirred at the town without George Bailey. Without George Bailey around, Bedford Falls descends into a sad little place run by Mr. Potter with debauchery around every corner and slums for all to live in. It’s an awful depiction of excess and really shows how one man can have a bigger impact than they realize. Does the fact that Bailey influenced a great many people with is small business venture mean capitalism is bad? No. What it does tell me is that one good man can stand athwart the evil actions of one bad man with unchecked power. One bad banker does not necessarily mean that all bankers are bad, especially considering the fact that our hero character is…a good banker. Also, stop to think for a moment – how did Potter in this alternate version of Bedford Falls get the town renamed Pottersville? Doesn’t that imply he had government interference to get his way? Wouldn’t that mean that he was trying to use the local government to serve his will instead of the people’s will? In the entire film we see one character who uses local government to do anything at all – Potter. He calls the police on Bailey after robbing him of his money, he (in the alternate city) uses government intervention to re-name the town after him, he clearly had to get most of the town re-zoned for some of his shadier businesses he brought in, he calls on the banking inspector to try to crush his nemesis in business. Potter is no conservative hero, he’s a “crony capitalist” who will use his outsized influence to warp capitalism and democracy to his own whims. If Potter is a hero, then so is Donald Trump when he uses eminent domain to displace families to build casinos and parking lots. It’s the same type of crony capitalism and it’s neither heroic or conservative.
Bailey and Potter are two men in similar industries who chose to use their freedom under capitalism very differently. One decides to go all out for himself. The other decides to make an impact in the community for what he perceives as good. Not through running for public office. Not by using public funds to bail out his business. He did it through his privately run business where he made enough money to make ends meet, keep his mentally unstable uncle employed, and still was able to help the community around him to increase homeownership. Big government legislation such as Dodd-Frank make it harder for people like Bailey to do business.
Potter is, in many ways, a fictionalized Donald Trump – always out for himself, no matter the cost. He’s a crony capitalist through and through. Conservatism doesn’t mean we don’t want to help our neighbor, we just don’t want to rob one neighbor to help the other. We’d rather do it ourselves. That’s what Bailey does. And really, in the end, how is that a bad thing?
Now, as we’re talking about modern opinions that are all the rage these days among conservatives about Christmas movies let me crush another one for you with one sentence. Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie. You’re welcome.
Join in the debate in the comments.