Of all the nasty quips that Mr. Potter directs toward George Bailey, there is one that hits home: “You’re worth more dead than alive!” That very night, George contemplates suicide on the edge of the bridge and says it for himself: “I found it out a little late. I’m worth more dead than alive.”
In “It’s a Wonderful Country,” Jack Fencl argues that George’s belief is “folly.” Why? Because George’s “existence has improved the lives of those he cares about.” Mr. Gower, Harry Bailey, Nick the bartender, his wife Mary, and the character of Bedford Falls itself are all better off, “simply through his good-natured existence.”
It is true that George has made life better for dozens, if not hundreds of people in Bedford Falls. But it was not merely a pleasant attitude that made this possible. George sacrificed each and every one of his hopes and dreams for the sake of others; rather than go to college, see the world, and pursue his dream career in planning modern cities, George gave away multiple hefty sums of savings and committed himself to the life he never wanted: running the Building and Loan and settling down in Bedford Falls. His life is a definitive demonstration of unmitigated self-sacrifice, unrivaled by any character in the film and the vast majority of real people who enjoy the film each Christmas.
According to Fencl, It’s a Wonderful Life is a celebration of two complimentary American ideals: “Individualism and strong community spirit are not in tension with one another, but rather exist harmoniously when properly understood.” Yet George’s life and mental transformation, which is central to the film’s narrative and moral lesson, actually shows us the gravity of the contradictions between these two concepts.
Fencl’s first error is to trivialize George’s many contributions to his community as mere acts of goodwill or benevolence. Not once does he employ the far more accurate term of sacrifice to describe what George has given up for his friends and acquaintances in Bedford Falls.
George often finds himself at a fork in the road, forced to choose between two very different paths forward – one that would lead him toward his personal life goals, and one that would help someone in Bedford Falls. George always chooses the latter with increasingly little hesitation, and with increasingly painful consequences.
George has no one to blame but himself for the many years he spends working late nights at the unprofitable Building and Loan. After the board votes not to dissolve the Building and Loan so long as George sticks around as executive secretary, he is still adamant that he will leave: “Now let’s get this thing straight. I’m leaving. I’m leaving right now. I’m going to school. This is my last chance. Uncle Billy here, he’s your man.” Not only does George give up his “last chance” to leave town, but he gives away years’ worth of college savings to his brother, Harry, who promised to come back and take over the company in four years.
When Harry is offered a well-paying job from his father-in-law after graduation, he tells George that he “never said I’d take it, you’ve been holding the bag here for four years and …. Well, I won’t let you down, George.” But George sees the excitement in the eyes of Harry’s new wife and ultimately decides, for a second time, to stick around in Bedford Falls.
This was no easy decision. We can see his disturbed state of mind as he stands at the gate of his mother’s house, leafing through folders of travel destinations. Yet he sadly throws those flyers away, right along with his childhood dream of seeing the world, so that Harry can live the life he wants in Buffalo.
Towards the end of the film, we learn that he has laid down his wife and his children on this very same sacrificial altar. George’s aggressive conversation with his daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Welch, makes it clear that his children are living an uncomfortable lifestyle of borderline poverty. “Maybe my kids aren’t the best-dressed kids; maybe they don’t have any decent clothes…” His house, too, is a “drafty old barn” where he cannot even afford to fix the seemingly simple (and very annoying) problem of the ball on the stair railing repeatedly falling off in his hand.
The poverty of the Baileys is a result of razor-thin profit margins at the Building and Loan, to the point where George, the man in charge, is only making $45 a week to support a family of six. As Potter aptly points out, George also had to support his mother and would not have been able to save a penny “if [he] skimped]”, even if he had just one or two children instead of four. Still, to the detriment of his own family, George insists that Violet Bick take a substantial amount of his own cash so that she can move to the big city and start a new life.
“We cannot control what happens in life,” says Fencl, “but we can always control how we respond.” This is quite true, but the unfortunate circumstances that George continues to find himself in – culminating in a warrant for his arrest – are not simply thrust upon him. George was certainly not forced to take personal responsibility for Uncle Billy’s harebrained mistake of losing the $8,000, yet he does exactly that, admitting to Potter of all people that it was he who had misplaced the money and he who should face prison. If Sam Wainwright had not opened a $25,000 line of credit for him at the end of the movie, not only would George have gone to prison for Uncle Billy’s mistake, but his wife and four children would also have lost their only breadwinner. Their present poverty would have become a desperate situation with no welfare state to bail them out.
Keeping Uncle Billy on as the number two at the Building and Loan was a sacrificial decision in and of itself. George could not let his clearly insane 56-year-old uncle go, or even demote him to a position with less responsibility. The vision of Pottersville reveals that Billy went to the insane asylum after the Building and Loan shut down, yet George’s trust in the raven-toting lunatic to remain in a management position for years on end contributed to the financial insolvency of the Building and Loan (“between you and me, Mr. Carter, we’re broke!”) and the careless loss of more than $100,000 in today’s dollars.
It is the combined effect of decisions like these that makes it possible for George to positively impact his community, and they are clearly worthy of the term “self-sacrifice.” Just like his father before him, George “never once thought of himself.” But Fencl does him a massive disservice by crediting his “good-natured existence” rather than acknowledge the sheer magnitude of what George has endured for the sake of others.
In his ignorance of George’s weighty sacrifices, Fencl is necessarily blinded to the inherent contradiction between George’s two overarching priorities: a) helping his friends and community, and b) pursuing any of his long-held personal aspirations. Not only is there a distinction here, but it is key to most of George’s major decisions; at no point does he have the opportunity to pursue both of these things at the same time. It is simply not true, as Fencl asserts, that George “didn’t have a choice in the events that kept him from pursuing his dreams”; he voluntarily gave them up, motivated primarily by his ethical code of altruism.
George’s New Mindset
Clarence helps George undergo a fundamental transformation in his “understanding of his life and how it relates to those around him.” As Fencl correctly points out, “his sense of self” is altered at its core, “not merely determined by how much or little he satisfies his personal wants and desires.” Rather, his “family, friends, business, and community are a part of his identity” just like his “internal thoughts, motivations, and passions” – in other words, his self-centric ambitions.
It is only through the lens of Clarence’s moral framework – finding one’s worth and happiness in one’s impact on other people – that Fencl can claim that George’s life is “pretty great.” Fencl goes beyond even that: “By directly and indirectly improving the lives of those he cares about, George made his own life inestimably better than it ever would have been if he had followed the shallow whims of his youth” (emphasis added).
This statement unfairly boils down George’s ambitious personal goals of leaving Bedford Falls, going to school, seeing the world and pursuing his dream career as the “shallow whims” of a child. George’s life is not only just as good as it would have been if he had never taken over the Building and Loan, but “inestimably better.” The reason for this is twofold: George lives according to the self-sacrificial mindset instilled by his father and embodied in the Building and Loan; and Clarence shows him that he can find identity, worth, and happiness in the wellbeing of other people, just as he had once found them in pursuit of personal goals.
Complimentary or Contradictory?
It is ludicrous for Fencl to make this argument and simultaneously claim that there is no contradiction or inconsistency between individualism and “community spirit” – more accurately described as “self-sacrifice,” based on the film’s portrayal of George’s life and choices. Nor can we reconcile the two very different mindsets of finding worth and identity in achieving the goals one has laid out for themselves, and finding worth and identity in one’s impact on others. Indeed, it is this fundamental shift from the former outlook to the latter that Clarence imparts unto George by the end of the film.
George proves that these two approaches to living the good life cannot exist harmoniously. “Why did we have to live here in the first place and stay around this measly, crummy old town?” asks a frustrated George of Mary. Clarence has the answer: because of what you have done and will continue to do for other people. Until George adopts this mindset, he is unable to fully embrace the various degrees of suffering he must endure as a result of his own self-sacrificial choices. He will always pine after the “shallow whims” of his youth; indeed, even near the end of the film, when George is angry at the loss of the $8,000, he destroys a workshop set up in the corner with a drawing table, several books, and architectural models of modern buildings and bridges. This is a visceral representation of what George has given up.
It is critical to understand the distinction between George’s self-sacrifice and his craving for self-actualization, demonstrated by every major choice he faces and his disappointment at the difficult life he has created for himself. George is not simply demonstrating benevolence or goodwill toward his fellow man. It is clear that he universally prioritizes the lives of others, writ large, over his own, and even over the wellbeing of his wife and children.
Fencl focuses his short discussion of charity on the “instant and unanimous” outpouring of goodwill from Bedford Falls residents after they hear that George needs help. These people have benefitted from George’s sacrifice for years; in the case of Mr. Gower, his debt to George stretches back decades. It is an admirable demonstration of virtue for these people to finally come together and help George in his hour of greatest need, for each of them are in his debt. Saving George from prison is a small price to pay for the many sacrifices he has made on their behalf. Moreover, it is delightful to see an example of a closely-knit community looking out for their own in the absence of the modern welfare state.
But George himself demonstrates charity, too, albeit on a much grander scale and much more consistently. He is fundamentally committed to altruism, or extreme charity. Unlike the residents of Bedford Falls, his charity comes at the expense of his individual ambitions and the comfort of those he cares about most: his family. The shift in mindset that Clarence urges makes the incompatibility of those two priorities all the more clear; for George to be happy, he must find worth, identity, and happiness in the positive effects his charity has had on other people.
George is by no means an individualist. His individual life is rarely at the forefront of his decisions. Rather, his primary moral concern is the wellbeing of others.
George holds within him a hierarchy of values. Benevolence and goodwill toward one’s family and friends can be a highly individualistic way to live one’s life, for one can find tremendous personal value in the spiritual fulfillment one receives from deep relationships with other people. His marriage to Mary, for instance, is highly personal, and George finds enormous value in her presence in his life; the choice to marry her in the first place, or to give something up to keep her around, are not sacrificial if Mary does indeed add value to George’s life. But George often seems to cross this line between benevolence toward those who add substantive value to his own life, and sacrifice toward those who do not.
For example, George clearly values the Building and Loan; he sees that it is helping a great number of people, many of whom he does not know. Yet he also despises the idea of running the company himself; he knows that it would mean “being cooped up for the rest of [his] life in a shabby little office… [he’d] go crazy.”
Choosing to run the Building and Loan is altruistic, not individualistic. Unlike his marriage, where it is simple to identify the ways in which Mary adds value to George’s own life, it is difficult to notice who, exactly, George is good friends with in the movie. But it is unreasonable to assume he has deep relationships with the entire community of Bedford Falls.
Though George, the individual, does value the Building and Loan from an ethical standpoint, that value is entirely rooted in what the Building and Loan does for people outside of, or tangential to, George’s own life. The altruistic value he finds in the act of helping others – not just his family and friends – are in direct contrast to his values of exploring the world, going to college, and pursuing a successful career. Just because an individual holds a particular value does not mean a pursuit of that value is individualistic.
Fencl accurately points out that Mr. Potter is far from the ideal capitalist. He is in bed with congressmen, the police, and regulators; it is not hard to imagine that much of his wealth and domination of the real estate market in Bedford Falls is a result of extensive collusion with the state.
Potter is also a criminal by the end of the movie, outright stealing $8,000 to eliminate his primary competition: the Building and Loan.
Still, it is a challenge to view this film as an “enthusiastic endorsement of economic liberty and the virtues of market capitalism.” Fencl’s discussion of these virtues is grounded entirely in the ability of a business to help other people. But this altruistic standard considers individual success, pursuit of profit, and entrepreneurship itself as necessary evils, rather than the primary virtues that they are.
It’s a Wonderful Life sets up a contrast between the business savvy of Mr. Potter and the self-sacrifice of the Baileys. Potter is exacting and scrupulous in evaluating any business proposition; he will not give a loan to George with no “stocks, bonds, or collateral of any kind.”
George, on the other hand, is fine with giving risky loans on the basis of an applicant’s character and whether or not he calls them a friend.
Yes, the Building and Loan helps poor, “hard working people” buy a home, a goal that is often idealized as the epitome of the American Dream. But the Building and Loan is clearly defunct and always has been. Due to his constant financial hardship, we can imagine that George runs the Building and Loan much like his father, who refused to foreclose or demand rent payments from his tenants, even at the risk of defaulting on a loan to Potter. In the same vein, George has no collateral to back his own request for a loan from Potter. And while Potter is willing to offer George, his nemesis, a high-paying job “running my affairs” on account of George’s clear entrepreneurial ability, George exclusively employs family members in high-level spots at the Building and Loan, blinded to the incompetence exhibited by the likes of Uncle Billy.
No modern American business could survive in this fashion for long. Nepotism, personal biases, leniency with one’s friends and a fundamental ethos of helping others keeps the Building and Loan on the brink of financial ruin. Potter is more of a caricature than anything, but his acumen for running a successful business and his dedication to the profit motive are far closer to embodying American ideals of economic liberty.
In fact, the Building and Loan only survives as a result of a real entrepreneur – Sam Wainwright – making a fortune in the plastics business and bailing them out. This, too, is the only reason George is saved from a long stint in prison. Sam’s selfish pursuit of a high-paying career made it possible to assist the Building and Loan in its hour of greatest need, but the path he took to get there is itself a demonstration of virtue.
“That Sam made his fortune helping the allied war effort is not an insignificant detail,” says Fencl. He is quite right in this regard. Sam shows that it is possible to help others on a grandiose scale without the self-sacrificial mindset of George and Clarence – while viewing one’s own life as one’s highest value, and finding worth in one’s own success. But Fencl views Sam in a positive light solely due to his ability to help other people rather than acknowledge his virtues of ambition, vision, and entrepreneurship. If the degree to which a business helps other people is our standard of virtue, the failing Business and Loan is just as successful as Sam, and Potter’s knack for making good deals could even be considered a vice.
Free markets are not a positive American ideal because they enable charity, but because of the opportunity for individuals to succeed in their endeavors. Any benefit to others is a side effect, not a primary goal, of a profitable business and of capitalism itself. America was founded on this principle of individual liberty, drawing boundaries for the purpose of facilitating maximum freedom. The purpose of our Constitution is not to ensure the greatest wellbeing for the greatest number of people, but to guarantee the liberty of every individual and business to compete in the marketplace on their own merits.
It is difficult to see this message portrayed anywhere in It’s a Wonderful Life, outside of the minor character of Sam Wainwright, whose virtues are not explicitly celebrated in the film. George and the Building and Loan, not Sam, are portrayed as the heroes.
A Clash of Ideals
It is certainly possible for individualism, economic liberty, and charity to exist in harmony. It’s just not demonstrated in the film. Economic liberty and individualism are forever in contrast with George’s choices; by giving it all up to help his fellow man, George throws out the goals he once shared with Sam and his opportunity to find happiness outside of his impact on his community.
George’s struggle between his personal ambition and a self-sacrificial lifestyle is central to the plot and purpose of the film. Yet Fencl does not even attempt to explore this key dilemma. Instead, he applies vague notions of “all things America” to a film that is more about the personal development of George Bailey’s moral compass. He downplays George’s sacrifice, as if he “didn’t have a choice in the events that kept him from pursuing his dreams.” And he obscures the poverty of George and his family to parrot Clarence’s assertion that George’s life is far better than it could have ever been.
Fencl’s dismissal of George’s dreams as “shallow” is no surprise. But he inadvertently emphasizes the crucial contradiction between setting and fulfilling highly personal values, and living primarily for the sake of others. The rejection of individualism and embrace of self-sacrifice are on full display in George Bailey’s choices and ultimate fall from grace, and Fencl’s argument is all the weaker for refusing to engage – much less defend – the primary moral quandary of the film.