It’s a Wonderful Ethic

Tt’s that time of year again, and networks will be running the perennial holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s 1946 adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift” has become one of America’s best loved and critically acclaimed films. Jimmy Stewart, the “everyman” actor of his day, plays George Bailey, a banker with a heart who gives up his dreams to save his father’s building and loan company and help the folks in his hometown of Bedford Falls. Down on his luck, George contemplates suicide until his guardian angel shows him all the lives he has made better and the small town dystopia Bedford Falls would have become had he never been born. George realizes that his has indeed been a wonderful life.

One would have to be obtuse not to recognize Capra’s moral message. Bailey’s nemesis is Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), a slumlord and shareholder in the Bailey Building and Loan. He opposes its mortgages to the working poor and its forbearance on delinquent loans, and puts George over the edge when he steals $8000 of its money. Even the FBI, perhaps not the most astute film critics, in a memo dated May 26, 1947, recognized that “the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture…a common trick used by Communists.”

The film’s ideological tilt wins it a warm reception among contemporary Hollywood glitterati, who have never met a businessperson they liked, except the ones who sign their outsize paychecks. We’re still waiting for a movie adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg’s hugely successful 1941 novel that lifted the tinsel and painted an appallingly ugly, and undoubtedly more realistic, picture of Hollywood than its usual self-glorification. It has always given itself a free pass and gone easy on government and the media while crucifying business. Superficially, It’s a Wonderful Life appears to be just another piece of such propaganda and seemingly earns a place on the massive anti-business and anti-capitalist rubbish heap. However, while it’s a good bet that Capra never intended to do so, his film has important things to say about an American value that was fading even then and is now almost extinct: individualism.

It seems paradoxical to say the film is about individualism when it is a paean to George Bailey’s self-sacrifice. However, George’s attitude adjustment required divine intervention; he was ready to jump off a bridge. He wanted to see the world and be a builder, dreams he gave up for his family and Bedford Falls. Having abandoned his aspirations without giving himself a chance to pursue them, it is not surprising he ends up miserably suicidal. Small towns are often stultifying; smart, ambitious youth leaving them in search of adventure, fortune, and fame is an American standard. George’s guardian angel shows him the counterfactual of what would have happened had he not been born. What if the angel had shown George the counterfactual of what would have happened had he pursued his dreams? Bedford Falls might have become Pottersville, but what if George’s destiny was to become a wealthy and happy builder of great buildings and sprawling postwar communities, donating his money and time to all sorts of altruistic causes? Perhaps his too perfect wife, cloyingly adorable children, and the gratitude of Bedford Falls would still be adequate consolation prizes for giving up the life he could have achieved, or perhaps he would have jumped off that bridge, after all. Unless you’re counting on a guardian angel, the film makes a pretty good case for following your dreams.

George realizes that his quiet desperation is a result of his own choices; he takes responsibility for his emotional state. They did that back then. Having decided to take over the Building and Loan and become a capitalist, he also realizes that he will have to play by the unforgiving rules of capitalism. Although those rules had been under assault since the beginning of the New Deal, there were still backwaters like Bedford Falls that played by them. When George butts heads with Potter over mortgages to the working poor, the argument is in terms of risks. George doesn’t say that the Building and Loan should give such mortgages because it would be good public relations or score points with the government. There will be no program to guarantee the loans. Rather George argues that Potter misjudges the risks of lending to the struggling poor, not considering their salt-of-the-earth integrity. Also, Potter has a conflict of interest, since he’s currently their slumlord. George is proved right as his affordable housing project, Bailey Park, takes root and thrives while Potter’s slums wither.

Character counted back then. Whatever his altruistic inclinations, George wouldn’t have extended those mortgages if he didn’t believe he was going to get paid back. Conversely, he wouldn’t have stopped the run on his Building and Loan if his depositors had not trusted his integrity and his explanation of fractional reserve banking. Character and reputation are the unheralded glue that holds capitalism together. Self-interest is capitalism’s mainspring, but it is a self-interest that recognizes that over the long-term, people transact with people and institutions worthy of their trust. In a banking universe with no safety nets―deposit insurance, too big to fail, the Federal Reserve―would you entrust your money to George Bailey or to one of today’s Brioni-clad mega-bankers, most of whom would die if they were pulled away from their Washington teat? If a banker today cited character as a reason for denying or approving a loan, he or she would probably be hauled into court. Conversely, nobody cares about the ethics of the depositaries that take their money, since the government guarantees one and all.

The ethic of individualism is the ethic of self-interest: pursuing one’s dreams and aspirations; getting ahead; making a better life for one’s children; proud to say what’s mine is mine. We’ve left that for a world where businesses downplay their profits and advertise how much they “give back,” where “selfless” public servants bestow upon the people goods and services they used to provide for themselves at much less expense, where the highest and the mightiest take private jets to exotic locales to decry the problem of global poverty, where bookshelves groan with long, unread tomes on what the government must do to improve society, and where celebrities seek approval for their devotion to worthy causes while “moving on” past any disclosures of their personal debaucheries and depredations.

Notwithstanding this rampant goodness and concern for all mankind, by many measures our society is much worse off than those bad old, It’s a Wonderful Life days when individuals took responsibility for their own fates. The number of people on welfare and food stamps is at an all time high, and we’ve mortgaged our future. Children are less educated and less proficient in basic math and English skills than their parents. The illegitimacy rate is 40 percent, drug addiction and drug-funded gangs are pervasive, cities are crumbling before our eyes, and depravity is constantly glorified in films, video games, the internet, and television.

The flip side of “what’s mine is mine” is “what’s yours is yours.” Even after years of the government telling them that it would keep them “free from want,” there were still places like Bedford Falls that didn’t believe it, that knew that “free from want” had to be earned, like everything else. The flip side of individualism and self-interest is individual responsibility, psychological self-sufficiency, and acceptance of consequences. We’ve replaced those ideas with…what? “It’s not my fault” has become our mantra, an abdication of personal responsibility assuaged by a blame absolution collective while tragedy escalates and society crumbles. When everybody is responsible for everybody, nobody is responsible for anybody, including themselves. George runs into a string of bad luck, but he knows the fault lies not in the stars or society, it is in himself, the choices he’s made. He decides to end his private misery and chooses to end it privately. He doesn’t trump up a grievance, go to a workplace or school or public place, and massacre innocents. After yet another insane tragedy, we need to remember that they didn’t do that back then, and we need to rediscover why.

This review was first published on Straight Line Logic on 12/17/12

One response to “It’s a Wonderful Ethic

  1. Brilliant review! Love it. You have redeemed IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE for me. But, sink me, the bankers are wearing their black hats again, and I’m no communist. They have pursued short term self interest and corrupt government officials instead of doing the right thing. But can large institutions ever have morals and ethics that might show them what the right thing to do actually is? And if they did know, what besides laws, which are so easy to bend to their advantage, could compel them to do it? Bureaucracy is by definition a heartless and brainless entity. Oh, well. My favorite Christmas movie that I’ve watched too many times is Gene Shepherd’s A CHISTMAS STORY. “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!”


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