There seems to be a blooming holiday tradition in certain circles to attack “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This year we have Michael Graham in the Boston Herald taking up the ill-considered assault on Frank Capra’s masterpiece.
Graham argues both that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a bad film on a technical level and that its message is bad. His reason for saying it’s a bad film hinges on a claim that the plot makes no sense (“makes about as much sense as Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez explaining the defense budget” are Graham’s exact words) because Clarence didn’t simply tell George where his missing $8,000 went.
That’s his entire critique of the film from a technical perspective. The idea that the missing money is merely a catalyst for deeper matters amply established throughout the film, and that these issues of regret, self-loathing, and blindness might be considered more important to an angel sent from God, apparently didn’t occur to Graham. As we shall see, this is part and parcel of his whole perspective.
Having dismissed “It’s a Wonderful Life” on a technical level with a single ill-informed paragraph, he proceeds to tackle the film’s message. Graham’s position is that George’s life is “pretty awful” because he endures a lot of suffering, is unable to go to college or even on his honeymoon, and “his kids wear second-hand clothes and get sick from the cold…because George can’t afford nice things for his family.” Graham then claims the film’s vindication of George’s life “fails” because “his life still stinks. He’s not, in fact, rich or even financially secure…and on top of that, Potter gets to keep the eight grand!”
Thus, apparently, Graham’s definition of a good life is one in which we are “rich, or even financially secure,” able to do what we like, able to avoid suffering as much as possible, and perhaps one in which evil people are punished as well. He then rather absurdly goes on to claim that “It’s a Wonderful Life” represents socialist, New Deal-style economics, and that it was intended for “the workers at a Soviet collective circa 1949,” with the message “who cares that you have no shoes? Back to the factory for Mother Russia.”
Ironically, Graham’s view of the good life as defined primarily by material security and wellbeing is far closer to a socialist perspective than anything in the film. The foundational idea of Marxism is that the world is purely material, and therefore creating material security and equality for the most people is the highest good.
Judging by this op-ed, Graham would agree, but only dispute with a Marxist whether socialism or capitalism creates the most good for the most people. One thing with which a Marxist would never agree is that a man’s happiness is far more dependent on family, community, virtue, and so on than by his material well being.
This is a fundamental flaw in modern discourse for both conservatives and liberals: we focus so much on material issues, trying to work out a system that will make, as Graham says, “the best world for the most people,” that we don’t stop to ask what we mean by “the best world” or a “good life.” Both sides are making the exact same mistake even as they draw different conclusions: both accept the same basic philosophy, but disagree on its application.
Aristotle recognized this mistake 2,000 years ago, and so has every competent philosopher since. Yes, we need a certain baseline of material wellbeing to live, but that is not what makes a good life. A good life means living well— individual virtue, familial and communal harmony, meaningful occupation, and religious worship are the main points.
This harmonizes with Christianity, which added the elevation of self-sacrificial love as both the supreme individual virtue and a means to guard that material baseline of wellbeing and communal harmony. But a man doesn’t need to be rich or even “financially secure” (in truth such security is mostly illusionary anyway) in order to have a wonderful life.
This is traditional, Christian morality, and once upon a time it was this that was set in opposition to Marxism (as well as to the “Darwinist” form of capitalism espoused by Potter). This is the philosophy of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and indeed of all Capra’s films. It’s also the philosophy that conservatives ought to be advocating. Our focus on economic and material matters obscures our fundamental philosophical dispute with leftism, and it is precisely on the point that immaterial matters are far more important to a man’s life than his material wellbeing or social status.
Something Graham and others who describe the film as “socialist” seem to miss is that the Building and Loan is not a government organization supporting people in idleness, but a business offering loans to working men funded by the voluntary support of their neighbors. Charity is not socialism, and I beg conservatives to stop parroting the socialist lie that it is.
The message of the film is that a “wonderful life” is one spent in service to others, sacrificing oneself to help those in need. This, as the film demonstrates, not only makes their lives better, but strengthens and sustains the entire community. Men who are able to live with dignity, raise families, and operate businesses in peace create a community in which it is good to live, which in turn improves everyone’s lives, producing “a good life for the most people.” One wonderful life creates more wonderful lives.
Pottersville, meanwhile, is an image of the world selfish greed creates. That’s not the same thing as the kind of entrepreneurship that leads George’s friend Sam to become a millionaire plastics manufacturer, or that supports the likes of Mr. Martini in his small restaurant. It’s one where people’s interactions with each other are purely commercial, or else laced with suspicion and hostility.
The point isn’t that wealth or business is bad. The point is that making it the chief occupation and guiding hand of life leads to a dark and joyless world, and that the proper way to counteract it is through love, charity, and self-sacrifice. The contrasting goal is not an ordered, planned society, but a community of people pursuing their own lives in freedom and choosing to help each other along out of friendship and compassion.
George Bailey is “the richest man in town” because he has an abundance of what really matters: a loving family, loyal friends, a happy and healthy community, and meaningful work. And he has all of that because he chose time and again to sacrifice his desires for others. That’s the opposite of a socialist message— it is a Christian one, and we ought to be proclaiming it.