George Bailey

One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life . A few days ago I came across a clip from the movie on YouTube, and it struck me that a person’s general outlook can be categorized as either a Mr. Potter or a George Bailey. This split between the greedy Mr. Potter attempting to gain ownership of every major business in Bedford Falls (an admiral capitalist goal) and the idealistic and self-sacrificing George Bailey seems to represent two ends of the social and political spectrum.

Mr. Potter George Bailey
Wall Street Main Street
Libertarians Liberals
Tea Party Occupy Wall Street

Of course, not all people fall neatly into one category or another, but there seems to be a general sorting. Either you believe people deserve to have a decent place to live even if they have chosen to have 10 kids (Mr. Martini), or you think that those same people made their choices and don’t deserve the same level of comfort or ownership. Either we live in a world where people help his or her neighbor (even when that means foregoing a little profit) or you believe each person is on their own. The George Baileys of the world seem to think we ought to lend a hand to the less fortunate. And I think they would believe the government should lend a hand to first time home-buyers (and no Freddie and Fannie didn’t cause the housing collapse) because home ownership leads to stabler families and neighborhoods as well as decent living conditions.

The funny part about being a George Bailey is I find myself feeling like I have to apologize for it. The Mr. Potters of the world have the upper hand. After all, who can argue with rewarding effort and hard work. Who is going to object to allowing people to keep the fruits of their labor. Unfortunately, individual effort is not always enough. In fact, much of what people have comes from good luck and not from effort. Where and to whom you were born tends to be a better predictor of future success (including the all-important success in school) than anything else. Until we have a society that guarantees each child an equal chance at success, and not one that allows the arbitrariness of birth to determine how well one’s school is funded, or whether one has adequate nutrition and health care, I am going to continue to identify with the George Bailey’s of the world.

In an interesting take on It’s a Wonderful Life in Salon magazine, Rich Cohen argues that what George Bailey sees in the alternate world of Pottersville is not how the world would have been without him, but how the world really is. According to Cohen, what Clarence the angel reveals to George is that Bedford Falls is the fantasy, and Pottersville is the reality.

Maybe Cohen is right, maybe we are all currently living in Pottersville—but even if he is—I think it may be time to move to Bedford Falls.

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