In our age of corporations like Purdue Pharma and California’s PG&E, which put profits before people’s lives, and in an age of stuborn lingering Trumpism, its wonderful to be reminded that good values can still trump profit seeking—even in the USA, where capitalism remains rooted in our culture.
The conservative economist Milton Friedman once wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Unfortunately, profits can come from cigarettes, assault weapons, and other products that harm people, and they can be boosted by false or misleading advertisements that pollute our minds. Sociologist Daniel Bell once stated that “capitalism . . . [had] no moral or transcendental ethic.” As Shakespeare’s Hamlet uttered, “ay, there's the rub!” Without a higher moral ethic, profits come before people. They don’t have to in a capitalist system, as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey illustrates in It’s a Wonderful Life; but by providing no higher ethic, capitalism tilts us to a profits-first mentality.
By “wonderful world” in my title, I mean two kinds of wonderful: wonderful as in astonishing but also as in very good. Astonishing because George Bailey’s behavior (putting people before profits) is unusual (astonishing) in a capitalist system. And very good because we should put people before profits; it is the moral thing to do. Love, kindness toward others, should be at the top of our hierarchy of values. And developing and living by such a hierarchy should be central to our existence.
But let’s now examine director Frank Capra’s wonderful film that first appeared in 1946 (some spoilers revealed). It begins with George Bailey as a young boy living in the small fictional town of Bedford Falls, NY. In his youth he saves the life of his brother George, who had fallen through the ice, and he once again performs a heroic deed when the pharmacist for whom he works mistakenly puts poison in a capsule meant for a Mrs. Blaine, whose home has been struck by diphtheria, and George overcomes the drugist’s objections to convince him he has made a mistake.
Around this same time the boy George has his first confrontation with the main villan of the film, the big-shot moneybags of Bedford Falls, Mr. Potter (played by one the great Barrymore-family actors, Lionel). The confrontation occurs in his dad’s office, where as head of the Bailey Building and Loan Association he asks Mr. Potter for a month extension of the five thousand dollars he owes him.
The dialogue which follows indicates that Potter puts profits before people while George’s father does the opposite. Here is part of their exchange. POTTER: “Have you put any real pressure on those people of yours to pay those mortgages?” PETER BAILEY: “Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.” POTTER: “Then foreclose!” MR. BAILEY: “I can't do that. These families have children.” POTTER: “They're not my children.” MR. BAILEY: “But they're somebody's children.” POTTER: Are you running a business or a charity ward?”
After Potter calls Mr. Bailey a failure, son George retorts, “He's not a failure! You can't say that about my father. . . . [He’s] the biggest man in town!”And with his care for other adults and their children, maybe he is the “biggest man” in town. Plus, in his dad’s care for others, George has a wonderful role model.
But like many young men in small towns—back in the late 1920s when George later tells his girlfriend Mary (Donna Reed) his plans and still today—he wants to get out of town and make his way in the larger world: “I'm shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then I'm coming back here and go to college and see what they know . . . and then I'm going to build things. I'm gonna build air fields. I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I'm gonna build bridges a mile long.”
Unfortunately, however, his father has a stroke and dies, leaving uncertain the fate of the Bailey Building and Loan Association. George cancels his planned trip abroad to help settle matters, and finally the directors meet, with Mr. Potter being one of them. The chairman of the directors declares that their main task is now “to appoint a successor” to Peter Bailey. Potter, however, claims that the business “is not necessary” to the town. Therefore, he makes a motion to dissolve it “and turn its assets and liabilities over to the receiver.” He also claims that Peter Bailey was “no businessman,” but George once again claims his dad’s superiority to Potter: Dad “never once thought of himself. . . . He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums. . . . People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be!”
But unfortunately for George he is soon told that unless he takes over the running of the business it will indeed disappear. So, with the help of Uncle Billy (played by the excellent character actor Thomas Mitchell), he does, forgoing college. The money he had saved for it he gives to his brother Harry, so he can go to college which he does, becoming a football star.
Meanwhile, George marries Mary. The couple had planned to have a honeymoon in New York and Bermuda, but a run on their savings and loan business (it was the Great Depression era) led the couple to cancel the trip and instead use the honeymoon money to pay some of their customers needed cash. George and Mary move into and fix up an old house, eventually have four children, and the family business loans money to poorer townspeople so they can buy their own homes in places such as Bailey Park, described as “a district of new small houses, not all alike, but each individual. New lawns here and there, and young trees. It has the promise when built up of being a pleasant little middle class section.”
As expected, George continues to have run-ins with Mr. Potter. At one point, apparently in the early 1930s, desiring to put an end to any competition from Bailey Building and Loan (BB&L), Potter offers George a job at $20,000 a year (a 1935 dollar would be worth about $20 today), almost ten times as much as George earns running BB&L. Although tempted, George ultimately refuses to work for Potter and tells him he’s a “scurvy little spider.”
During World War II, George is 4-F because of a bad ear, but he and Mary do what they can to help the war effort. Brother George, however, becomes a war hero and President Truman (late in 1945) pins the Congressional Medal of Honor on him. Meanwhile, Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000, and an alarmed George now dealing with a bank examiner yells at Billy, “Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal, and prison. . . . One of us is going to jail! Well, it's not going to be me!” (I’ll say no more about what happened to the lost money except to mention that the villainous Mr. Potter is involved.)
In desperation George goes home and uncharacteristically grouses at Mary and the kids and even (over the phone) at one of his children’s teachers. He then storms out of the house and, although its evening, goes to Mr. Potter’s office, hoping to borrow eight thousand dollars. But Potter replies, “Why don't you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight thousand dollar?” He follows this by saying, “Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I'm going to swear out a warrant for your arrest. Misappropriation of fund*– manipulation – malfeasance.”
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Increasingly desperate, George leaves and goes to Martini's bar and restaurant, where he drinks too much. Following that he ends up on this snowy night standing on a bridge over a river and contemplates jumping in and ending his life.
What happens then involves miraculous events that enable George to realize that despite the lost money and his fears, his life has been a good one; and Bedford Falls, and indeed the world beyond, is a much better place because of all his actions. In the end he goes back to his house, where townspeople pile in to furnish him with all the money he needs to return the lost eight thousand dollars.
As Uncle Billy tells George, “Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told a few people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money. They didn't ask any questions—just said: ‘If George is in trouble–count on me.’ You never saw anything like it.”
Thus, in the end love and care for other people triumph over the selfishness and greed of people like Mr. Potter. George is not perfect, as his railing against Uncle Billy, Mary, and his children indicate. But who among us is? Yet, he is a good man, with a proper hierarchy of values.
Today, at 2021’s end, this “Wonderful Life” film of 1946 does seem a bit dated. The Afro-American maid, Annie, whom we first see in George’s boyhood home, is too stereotypically content with her life serving a white family. Yet, in its implicit criticism of the capitalist stress on profits before people, the film tells an important truth for African Americans, as well as all other Americans.
Also dated seems the enveloping of the whole film in a web of heavenly doings, from a conversation between two angels (Franklin and Clarence) at the beginning to all of Clarence’s miraculous interventions toward the film’s end. But, and it’s a big “but,” these developments which seem old fashioned to our modern sensibilities, do not negate the film’s essential truth—the way to happiness lies in caring for others, not, not primarily, in pursuing profits.
At Martini's bar, George mumbles, “Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.” In the film, we never see George and his family going to church, and we have no evidence that they are especially devout or church-going Christians. Film director Capra was raised Catholic, but as a young man he ceased being a regular churchgoer, only again taking up his Catholicism more seriously in later life. But his early Catholic beliefs left a permanent mark on him. Like the later Pope Francis and like the poet Carl Sandburg, he always believed that politics should work for improving the common good, not further selfishness and greed.
Moreover, the Catholic Pope Francis himself testifies that not all that trumpet their Christianity are good Christians. He once warned against becoming “ideological Christians. . . . rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” And another Catholic, Dorothy Day, whom Francis identified as one of four great Americans, praised the values of the atheistic French writer Albert Camus.
True, religions can help us develop solid values and prioritize them correctly, but “religious” people can also be dogmatic and intolerant. What is important is not so much which religion, if any, we profess, but what values we live by.
Finally, we return to the subject of capitalism and values. Despite the enthusiasm of some Evangelicals for U. S. capitalism, Pope Francis and some of his predecessors have been quite critical of it. So too have various thinkers from Karl Marx and Charles Dickens—his A Christmas Carol (1843) influenced the making of It’s a Wonderful Life—through the U. S. Progressives up to Wendell Berry and Thomas Piketty.
Although many Americans think we have a capitalist system, the U. S. State Department in 2001 declared that though “the United States is often described as a ‘capitalist’ economy,” it “is perhaps better described as a ‘mixed’ economy, with government playing an important role along with private enterprise.” As critics of capitalism from Marx and Dickens to the present day have stressed, in its pursuit of profits, it often lacks a “moral or transcendental ethic.”
As one historian described the relationship of capitalism to the Progressive movement of 1914, Progressivism was an attempt “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a counter calculus of the public weal [well-being].”
Now as 2022 is about to begin, that old classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a welcome reminder that it is less important what we call our system—capitalist or socialist—than that we have one that puts people before profits, in other words “a fair and moral economy.”
Walter J. Moss