Just before Christmas, Public Discourse published Carson Holloway’s reflections on the politics of the perennial holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The question seemed simple enough: are liberal or conservative principles better reflected in the virtues of George Bailey and Bedford Falls?
Patrick Deneen confounded that simplicity by publishing a blistering attack on George Bailey. Deneen sees George not as the protector of Bedford Falls’s virtues, but as the engine of their destruction. If we love Bedford Falls, we should hate George Bailey and the “sinister” suburbs he builds.
Deneen is right that George illustrates the great economic question that American people face in the current crisis. But I think Capra’s film also shows that Deneen’s critique of economic development is inadequate. In fact, nostalgia for Bedford Falls as it was before the advent of George Bailey is precisely what keeps the Mr. Potters of the world in business—as current events show.
The young George dreams of remaking the world: “to build things, design new buildings, plan modern cities … to shake off the dust of this crummy little town” and build “airfields, skyscrapers a hundred stories tall, bridges a mile long.” But fate denies him his ambitions, so he settles for remaking Bedford Falls by building the tranquil suburbs of Bailey Park.
Deneen sees those suburbs as a soulless hell, one fated not only to carry its inhabitants down into cultural depravity, but to destroy Bedford Falls and all its virtues:
George Bailey, in fact, destroys the town that saves him. . . . George represents the vision of post-war America: the ambition to alter the landscape so as to accommodate modern life, to uproot nature and replace it with monuments of human accomplishment, to re-engineer life for mobility and swiftness, one unencumbered by permanence, one no longer limited to a moderate and comprehensible human scale. . . . George Bailey’s experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.
Deneen goes on at some length about the role played in the film by front porches and neighborhood stores and the tree ruined by George’s car crash, a tree that the angry homeowner informs him his great-grandfather planted. By contrast, the vampiric Bailey Park “has no trees, no sidewalks, no porches. . . . Compared to Bedford Falls, the development is pedestrian-hostile, and its daily rhythm will feel devoid of human presence. . . . One doubts that anyone will live in these houses for four generations, much less one [sic]."
I accept Deneen’s premise that George represents economic modernization. He is the consummate entrepreneur, the ambitious dreamer who wants to make the world a better place by inventing new and better ways of doing things. His moral mission to serve humanity, and expand its horizons by helping people embrace new capacities, is the driving force behind the relentless change of the dynamic enterprise economy.
And I accept the premise that Bailey Park will eventually destroy Bedford Falls.
But I say that’s a good thing. As George’s story shows, wealth creation produces new ways of life.
Permanence in human affairs is always a pretense, and entrepreneurs like George live to puncture it. Human beings simply do not go on living the same way forever. Their ways of life are constantly changing.
Old ways of life that seem permanent are always in a state of decay. Deneen attributes permanence to Bedford Falls, but the movie shows that thinking to be false—just look at what Bedford Falls becomes without the life-giving power of George’s entrepreneurship! It’s not a choice between Bailey Park or Bedford Falls forever as it was. Bedford Falls was itself the product of a historically specific set of economic forces. It was always doomed to disappear whenever those forces changed. The only question is what would come next—and the two timelines in the movie show us the alternatives.
Deneen cheats by separating the horrible slums of Pottersville from the idyllic haven of “downtown” Bedford Falls. You can’t have one without the other. Traditional, old-fashioned communities like Bedford Falls are almost always dominated by a tiny, exploitative elite of powerful men.
People who have the opportunity to live in Bailey Park are simply not going to go on living in Pottersville. Bedford Falls died because people flocked to Bailey Park, and they did so because Bedford Falls really does have all the problems George hates about it. Mr. Potter embodies those problems.
Before modernity, people mostly lived under the illusion of permanence because the pace of change was slow. Four generations, which Deneen treats as the equivalent of eternity, is a relatively small period of time in human history. In fact, it’s just long enough to make people feel like nothing is changing, when in fact everything is changing—just slowly. The wealth creation of the modern economy speeds up the rate of change, revealing to us the true nature of the world we’ve always lived in.
Capra sees Bailey Park as liberating and morally ordered. He thinks the suburbs are not just advancing our material wellbeing, but also our moral and spiritual wellbeing. It’s worth asking why.
When we talk about “suburbs” what we really mean is people living in free-standing, single-family homes on their own plots of land. This way of life represents the liberation of the human family. Deneen tacitly admits as much in the words he uses to describe Bailey Park: “a more nuclear and private collection of households.” In Bailey Park, the household has stewardship over itself, becoming more and more a self-governing unit. Suburbs allow the family to extract an increased level of autonomy from the grasp of controlling social elites like Mr. Potter.
So there is a deep connection between the modern entrepreneurial economy and the family. That shouldn’t be surprising. Marriage and entrepreneurship share a lot in common, and George’s story illustrates the similarities.
Like marriage, entrepreneurship is essentially self-giving and generous. George is very much a typical entrepreneur in his desire to make the world a better place, and his disdain for people who prioritize making money. Fans of Ayn Rand will find nothing to like in George, just as they find nothing to like in most real entrepreneurs. (That’s why they need Rand’s fictional heroes as a substitute; the real entrepreneurs usually disappoint them.)
It’s telling that you could plausibly interpret Mr. Potter either as a Randian egoist or as one of the power brokers of the New Deal progressive project. Socialism and Randianism are basically the same worldview, differing only over the secondary question of the role of government. Entrepreneurship is the rejoinder to their materialism.
Marriage and entrepreneurship are generative and procreative. The family creates new life and nurtures the human person into a morally ordered being. The entrepreneur creates new ways of life that restore our moral bearings when old ways of life become—as they do in every age—cynical and dysfunctional.
And both are politically liberating. As Chesterton remarked, the only gods stronger than the gods of the city are the gods of the hearth. Or as Tocqueville observed, the sacredness of the family is what prevents larger social structures from becoming excessively sacred. Likewise, the entrepreneur liberates us from the tyranny of Mr. Potter. As Holloway points out, Capra makes a point of Mr. Potter’s ability to pull the strings of congressmen.
As a powerful case study, consider Mr. Martini. In the original timeline, we see the Martini family warmly welcomed into a beautiful new home in Bailey Park. They represent everything that makes George’s labors meaningful and rewarding. In the alternate timeline, Martini is a nasty brute of a man who intentionally makes his living by exploiting the alcoholism of others. Why the change?
The answer, I would suggest, lies in Mr. Potter’s remark that George builds houses for “a bunch of garlic eaters.” Experience and logic both indicate that building a community on tradition and the illusion of permanence must always presuppose a certain level of discrimination. For the social “inside” to remain thick and strongly cohesive, there must be an energetic pushing away of all that is “outside.” Trapped in Mr. Potter’s world, Mr. Martini becomes cynical and morally deadened because he is unjustly denied the opportunity that is his birthright as a human being. Building houses for garlic eaters is almost the paradigmatic act of the entrepreneur.
The argument over what we want more—George Bailey or Bedford Falls—has immediate relevance for our present crisis. Nostalgia for Bedford Falls as it was, for the illusion of permanence, is precisely what allows the Mr. Potters of the world to thrive. Deneen, like so many critics of economic development, thinks the global capital market caused the crisis by detaching the world of finance from local familiarity, where people could understand what was going on.
If you want to know what the world looks like when finance is localized, just look at how everyone in Bedford Falls has to grovel before Mr. Potter. Should we go back to that? No thanks.
The basic question is simple: Does cultural strength come from entrepreneurial development that frees the family to govern itself? Or does it come from trapping us within a small social world built on the illusion of permanence? Deneen answers the latter, which drives us right into Mr. Potter’s arms. If we want to build our culture on the generosity and generative power of the family, we should entrust it to the generosity and generative power of George Bailey.
Every time a bell rings, an entrepreneur destroys an injustice.
Greg Forster is the editor of Hang Together and the author of five books.
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