Nov 292002

Officially now; and in honor of the holiday let’s look at the all-time British favorite Christmas story, A Christmas Carol, and the all-time American one, It’s a Wonderful Life. These are both dedicated to the remarkable proposition that businesses ought to act as charities. The spirit of Christmas turns out to be altruism.

Poor Ebenezer Scrooge gets probably the worst rap in all of literature. He is of course a banker. Evil businessmen are often bankers, because their activity is too abstract to appear productive. They seem to do nothing but count their money.

Scrooge’s punishment for grousing about giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off is a series of supernatural visits, first from his long-dead partner Marley, who has been condemned to wander the world as a ghost in chains. Scrooge asks him why:

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The common welfare was my business. Scrooge, to his credit, is not yet persuaded; he is hard-headed, and requires three more ghosts to bring him completely around. And when Scrooge finally sees what a miserable old miser he has been and how poor Tiny Tim Cratchit will die without his aid, what does he do? He gives Bob Cratchit a raise, not to reward him for efficacy or deter him from seeking other employment, but out of pity and nothing else. Penance for attending to business is drawn from the business itself. The counting house becomes a going social concern.

If Dickens had less charity for his characters and more for his readers, he would dispense with the preternaturally chipper Tiny Tim altogether, or kill him off early at the very least. Oscar Wilde once remarked of The Old Curiosity Shop that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing. His views on A Christmas Carol are unfortunately unrecorded.

Looking a bit wobbly Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is even more wholeheartedly dedicated to the proposition that altruism alone makes life worth living. To summarize, for recent visitors from another planet: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) finds Bedford Falls to be a sort of roach motel. His father dies suddenly and he inherits the local savings and loan. He courts and marries a local girl; the losing suitor, Sam Wainwright, leaves town and gets rich in plastics, of all things, twenty years before The Graduate. (For Capra, business success is tolerable, so long as it’s off screen and away from the action.) George’s younger brother Harry enlists in the Army for World War II and becomes a war hero; George sits it out with a bum ear.

The evil presence of Bedford Falls is the richest man in town, wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). (Typically for Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life conjoins a sound morality with a sound physique.) Potter, like Scrooge, is a banker. George Bailey is a banker too. But Potter is a solvent banker, while George runs Bailey Savings & Loan with a generosity of spirit and cheerful disregard for collateral that makes him a popular figure in town and keeps him perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. George barely staves off one bank run by appealing to the good nature of his depositors.

Potter does his best to put Bailey Savings & Loan out of business, going so far as to offer George an extremely well-paid job as his business manager, but never quite manages. Finally, one Christmas, Potter gets his chance when George’s dotty Uncle Billy absently wraps an $8,000 deposit in a newspaper and hands it to Potter, who keeps it. George, unable to raise the money (he appeals to Potter, who of course turns him down on the grounds that he has no collateral) and faced with financial ruin, decides on suicide.

He is about to jump off the bridge, when Clarence, the bumbling angel, jumps in before him. This is a master stroke. George forgets about killing himself and goes in after Clarence instead. Again, happiness comes from helping others. The two dry off, and then we get the lengthy counterfactual for which the movie is justly famous, the sojourn in Pottersville, the alternate Bedford Falls. I agree with this guy that Pottersville, with its pool halls, dance halls, neon lights and actual prostitutes, looks like a lot more fun than Bedford Falls, where watching the The Bells of St. Mary’s at the local movie house appears to be the only entertainment.

Yet in Pottersville George’s brother Harry, whom George saved from drowning as a boy, has died. Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, whom George saved from accidentally poisoning a customer, has become the town rummy. George’s wife has become a spinster who haunts the library (her other suitor, Sam Wainwright, being mysteriously absent from Pottersville). The townspeople all live in shanties because Bailey Savings & Loan wasn’t around to give them mortgages. (Why Potter should find a poor citizenry more profitable than a rich one is a nice question, but Capra is always a bit vague on business details.) George should live, he finally comes to realize, not for any reason of his own, but for all the happiness he has brought to others.

It will be objected that Scrooge is a sour old miser and Potter is a thief. Yes; and yes. These are two particularly nasty instances of what Ayn Rand used to call “package-dealing.” Instead of attacking the idea of running a business for profit directly, you sneak up on it by associating irrelevant personal characteristics with the one you’re really after. This is especially flagrant in Potter’s case. He is shrewd, and tough, and unpleasant, but nothing marks him as a thief up to the very moment Uncle Billy’s deposit falls literally into his lap. Every time I watch this scene, as Potter hesitates for a second, then hides the money in the newspaper, I half-expect him to give it back. But he never does.

(Update: On aesthetic grounds, Kernon Gibes defends A Christmas Carol (the 1951 movie version, with Alastair Sims) and Colby Cosh defends It’s A Wonderful Life. And I agree with them both, though more with Colby than Kernon. Bad art is useless propaganda.)

  5 Responses to “‘Tis the Season”

  1. Sat. Night Live’s send up of Wonderful Life could be construed as having your point in mind: The townspeople beat Potter to death. That’s surely package dealing.

  2. Well, what do you expect from such an ungrateful bunch of garlic-eaters anyway?

  3. Now that’s a film!

  4. The most perverse thing I’ve read in a while. Seriously, I felt that Ayn Rand reference coming the way Vietnam vets feel a storm coming. But I nevertheless kept hoping it wouldn’t come. And then it did. You’ve said elsewhere that thinkers are responsible for their followers, Aaron. If you’re right about this, in some cosmic karmic sense, Ayn Rand’s gonna have a whole lotta splainin’ to do on Judgment Day.

  5. There’s a catch here.
    We must remember when each of them were writing and what previous experience each of them had.
    Including Ayn Rand.
    As to businesses having to act as charities… maybe this is a little far-fetched.
    Businesses have to survive, above all. For that they must, simultaneously, mind about their stakeholders and deliver enough profit so the shareholders stay reasonably happy.
    Easier said than done, no?
    What will happen if the shareholders demand unrealistic profits – in the long term, at least? Or if the stakeholders decide to make it so that the business can no longer operate?

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