If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.-Henry David Thoreau
I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.- Adam Smith
Taking it as a personal charge to expose my wife to both Frank Capra and an American Christmas tradition, I subjected Na Young to a viewing of It's a Wonderful Life yesterday. Finding an American who's seen this film any less than a dozen times is nigh impossible, so I was curious to see the reaction of someone watching it for the first time.
"Well," Na Young sighed, as final credits rolled, "they sure tried to pack every possible moral lesson into that one."
Indeed they did.1 As a viewer, you'd be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled onto a dramatization of the Beatitudes, complete with the meek, the pure of heart, the merciful, the persecuted, and the poor (but no cheesemakers). The one ideal that Capra failed to incorporate, however, may be the most important of them all: that of enlightened self-interest.
Leaving aside Capra's intentionally idealized portrayal of small-town America (Bedford Falls) for a moment, I found myself on this viewing growing less and less sympathetic to George Bailey (James Stewart) as the film wore on. Sure, he's a goodhearted fellow, but his lack of self-interest regarding his bank - hell, even self-preservation - stands only to drive the town further into the grip of the Scrooge character, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). By the end of the film, Potter has come into $8,000 belonging, presumably, to Bailey's depositors and - because Bailey has so endeared himself to his patrons, many of them poor, through his philanthropy - those same depositors end up, almost literally, bailing him out of prison.
Why was he headed to prison? For losing his investors' money, that's why.
"Oh, you let your senile uncle lose our money? Well here, just let us give you some more and you can lose that, too."
By this point, George has spent the better part of his life trying to play both banker and charity worker, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's doing both with other people's money. He passes out loans based on personal acquaintance; he doesn't ease his feebleminded uncle out to pasture with a nice pension; and he takes it upon himself, without consulting the board of directors, to solicit a bailout loan from Potter, the very man from whom he is supposedly trying to save the town.
It's a Wonderful Life, like the society it portrays, reflects a common mistake on the part of many people: believing that corporations have an obligation to act as charities rather than as responsible guardians of their shareholders' interests. Milton Friedman put it most succinctly:
...there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.2
By this measure, neither Potter nor George Bailey are fulfilling their duties. Potter, in offering a lousy product at an inflated price, oversees a business model ripe for Schumpeter's "creative destruction," while Bailey is clearly intent on paving the road to ruin with his own best intentions and other folks' money.
My complaint with this film - and the larger demand that companies try to guess just what their "social responsibility" is - is not an endorsement of greed. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the same way that I could, instead of going out to gather firewood tonight, burn my furniture, it is Potter's greedy focus on immediate profit that would, in the face of lean competition, become his undoing. He only survives for as long as he does because, in Capra's world, the only competition he faces is that of George Bailey.
1 "They" being an all-star writing team that included Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, and Clifford Odets, all of whom did uncredited work on the script.
2 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom