Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's A Wonderful Life and Conservatism

Generally I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but with events going the way they are, political philosophy is a lot on my mind these days. Blogging is a way for me to sort out my thoughts, as I've found trying to write them in a coherent form is a surefire way to expose holes and inconsistencies. I considered starting another blog to keep the political off here, but it became clear that the political and the philosophical isn't really separable for me (as, in retrospect, I never should have expected it to be.) So when I think I have something worthwhile on politics to offer, I'll post it here.

I've posted before on It's A Wonderful Life regarding George Bailey's relationship to Kiekegaard's stages of existence. Here I would like to discuss the film as a deeply conservative movie. (Not everything I write here is original; but the ideas have been in the back of my head for so long that I can't remember where they all came from).

It's A Wonderful Life is conservative, of course, in the obvious sense that it celebrates the centrality of family and religion in life (or, at least, prayer). It is God who ultimately saves George Bailey, working through Clarence the angel and in answer to the prayers of George's family. But my primary reason for thinking the film conservative does not involve family and religion, or any particular set of "values", but the character of the dramatic battle between George and villain Henry F. Potter.

Potter is the richest man in town, the owner of the largest bank as well as much of the property in town. He is a real estate developer who enjoys sticking it to the little guy; he leverages his near monopoly in finance to drive hard bargains with lower middle class folks trying to find a place to live. Potter is the archetypical villainous "one percenter" imagined by the contemporary Occupy movement. The one institution standing in Potter's way of total domination of the town is the Bailey Building and Loan, started by George Bailey's father and taken over reluctantly by George on his father's passing. George, about to leave town to seek his fortune, is pressed into service by the Building and Loan's Board of Directors as the only man capable of running it and withstanding Potter's plan to crush it, and with it any hope ordinary folks have of escaping Potter's financial domination.

What makes the drama of the conflict conservative is that George opposes Potter's villainy not by appealing to government, but by opposing him with a competing private institution. He uses the opportunities liberty provides him to provide an alternative to Potter for the "little guy." This makes all the difference in the world as far as the conservative is concerned. George's relationship to the little guy is different from that of both Potter and what it would have been had George tried to help the little guy through expansive government. Potter has no respect for the ordinary man, whom he dismisses as "garlic eaters"; in perhaps the most stirring scene of the movie, George dresses him down for this attitude:

George wants the Building and Loan to continue so that "people will have some place to come without having to crawl to Potter." Notice he doesn't say people should be prevented from going to Potter, or that Potter should be forced by law to change his practices (although Potter has no problem acting unethically to secure his position - e.g. by not returning $5000 that Uncle Billy inadvertently left in his office - there is no indication in the film that he acts unlawfully.) George isn't about dictating to the ordinary man what is good for him, or dictating to Potter how he must change, notwithstanding George giving Potter a piece of his mind. George's respect for the ordinary man is shown by his desire to give the ordinary man a choice, and his faith that the ordinary man can take care of himself if only given the opportunity to do so. George then proves himself a conservative hero by not only advocating for the Building and Loan, but putting his own personal plans on hold when the Board dragoons him into running the institution.

Were George to go the liberal-big-government route (i.e. by running for office and advocating increasing banking regulation, an accompanying bureaucracy, and taxes to pay for it), his relationship with the ordinary man would end up being essentially no different than that of Potter. He would end up dictating what the ordinary man will do rather than empowering the ordinary man to pursue his own betterment as he sees fit. The problem with Potter was that there was no escape from him; the same problem would exist with the hypothetical Banking Bureau with George Bailey at the top.

Why should this be a problem with someone like George Bailey running it? After all, George is genuinely "for" the little guy. For one thing, it isn't clear in the film that everyone in town supports George Bailey. Potter stays in business, after all, so there must be people getting mortgages from him. And there is a crucial moment in the film, during the Crash of 1929, when a run on the Building and Loan seems about to get started. George, in typical fashion, puts his personal plans on hold (in this case, his honeymoon) to deal with the situation. He pleads with the depositors gathered in the building to only withdraw a limited amount sufficient to tide them over for awhile. The first man at the window refuses and withdraws his entire balance despite George's exhortations. Now we might think this man is selfish, but do we really know his circumstances? He might have very good reasons for needing the entire balance; and in the end, it is his money to do with what he will. George's frustration is palpable, but he gives the man his money and, fortunately, the people later in the line listen to his counsel and only withdraw a small amount. Were George not the man he is, he might dream of being the head of the Banking Bureau, when he could simply order everyone's accounts frozen. But George has far more respect for ordinary people than this; he understands that individual circumstances are different and that there is no "right answer" for everyone that can be dictated from on high. A bureaucracy inevitably treats people "like cattle" just as much as Potter does.

There is also the possibility that George Bailey doesn't remain George Bailey. He could be corrupted; in the film, he nearly is. Potter offers him a job with a huge salary increase that George finds tempting. As I pointed out in my earlier post, Potter has keen psychological insight and plays on the knowledge that both he and George have that, in many ways, George is a better man than are the people for whom he is sacrificing his future. He tempts George to adopt the same contempt for the ordinary man that he has. George barely but successfully avoids the temptation; my point here is, suppose George were successfully corrupted. In that case, it would be bad enough were he the head of the Building and Loan. It would be far worse were he the head of the Banking Bureau. The conservative insight here is that there are no "right people." There is no one with the wisdom and virtue to be trusted with centralized power. And even if there were such a person, once the power is centralized, it won't be long before someone less altruistic grabs it; and once he's got it, there is no getting it away from him short of a revolution. George Washington understood this in refusing to become the King of America.

And that is the eventuality that will likely occur. Henry Potter is the most powerful man in Bedford Falls. Were a Banking Bureau established, should we doubt that he would use all his power in a campaign to capture it? And once he's got control of the Banking Bureau, then the people of Bedford Falls are truly doomed, for Potter could use its power through audits, regulations and general bureaucratic fog, to prevent any rivals like the Bailey Building and Loan from even getting started. Any legal space that was previously available to free citizens would be squeezed out. This is the reason, contrary to liberal mythology, that big business actually favors government regulation rather than opposes it. Big corporations have the money and muscle to influence government bureaucracies in their favor; the increased regulations are just overhead for them but represent barriers for any potential rivals. It isn't big business vs government, but big business and big government versus the rest of us. And the only answer is conservative heroes like George Bailey.

Interestingly, the comments on the YouTube clip I linked to above seem to miss the point about George Bailey. Some of the commenters see him as a kind of forerunner to the Occupy movement since he takes on a banker. But George shows in contrast just what conservatives find lacking in the Occupy movement. The Occupiers literally sit around in a park demanding that someone else (specifically government) make their lives better. George Bailey doesn't sit around and complain, but overcomes the evil banker by becoming a banker himself.

Ironically, it seems to me a modern George Bailey-type conservative hero is Joe Kennedy, RFK's son. He's not a hero with respect to his years in Congress, where he was standard issue Democrat, but in his starting and continuing to run the private non-profit company Citizen's Energy, dedicated to providing low-cost energy to the poor. One often hears complaints of price-gouging by oil companies. If that is so, why not start your own oil company and sell at a cheaper price? You should be able to drive them out of business. That is the conservative answer and I admire Kennedy for his efforts in this regard. Instead of complaining about oilmen from Washington, he became an oilman to do it right. (One of the recurrent complaints against Kennedy is that he has a deal with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for cheap oil, so his cheap oil comes at the price of supporting a ruthless tyranny. That may be so, and I make no argument for or against Citizen's Energy, but one mark of a conservative hero is that he is willing to make the difficult tradeoffs that real solutions demand. A politician ducks these choices and the responsibility they entail - when has Obama ever accepted responsibility for anything? - but the conservative hero is willing to take these decisions on board and face the consequences.)

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