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Modern Conservatives Hate 'It's A Wonderful Life'

I wrote on Friday about the way the modern conservative movement, and the Republican party which is owned by it, have devolved into a kind of meanness unrecognizable from the classic Bob-Dole kind of conservatism I grew up knowing in the Midwest.

Modern conservatism has slipped from its moral base of protecting traditional small-town and community values, and has gotten so enamored of big-business capitalism, even at its most ruthless, that it no longer cares about those community-minded folks it claims to represent.

You could not get any stronger evidence of that than this new video by my colleague Lauren Windsor, where Cato director George Selgin, whom we saw last week saying bank runs are good, trashes one of the most beloved characters in all of movie history, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, for being a bad businessman:

A refresher on the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life: George Bailey is not a bad businessman. His only problem is that he is not a heartless, rapacious bastard like his foil in the movie, Henry Potter. In fact, George is such a good businessman that, against all odds, he keeps his bank from failing during the bank run of the Great Depression because of the faith and goodwill he has earned with the townspeople.

In one of the scenes, a guardian angel shows George what would have happened to his home-town had Potter taken over. George Bailey is such a good man that God sends down this guardian angel to boost his spirits — even God himself is pro-Bailey.

The only reason the bank gets in trouble later is that Potter, the nasty monopolistic businessman and slumlord, has stolen money from him. George Bailey is the iconic small town American good guy: Saving his business against the odds, standing up to wealthy sleaze-bags who want to control and ruin the community, and doing the right thing no matter what it costs him.

Only the worshipers of big business could root against George Bailey. The too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks that brought us the 2008 financial collapse and the Great Recession, the Koch brothers and their like, with their Ayn Randian “selfishness is good” philosophy, have sadly brought us an economy utterly dominated by the Henry Potters of the world — except on steroids.

Cato, their controlling benefactors, the Koch brothers, and the libertarian Wall Street bankers with the Ayn Randian ethics stand in allegiance with Henry Potter. His goal was to take over the whole town, and to run it the way that maximized his profits. If that meant most people had to sell their homes and rent slummy apartments instead, or have their mom-and-pop businesses fail, not only did he have no regret over that, he was delighted, because it fed his whole business model. Like the Wall Street banks that invest in payday loan centers, and companies like Wal-Mart that drive wages down so that more people will have to shop for the cheapest goods, Potter’s fundamental business model was to profit off of poverty and misery.

To those conservatives who believe the progressive movement is anti-business, I say, no, we are George Bailey progressives. We support the good local businesses whose mission is to do well by helping their customers. George’s Bailey community bank helped customers buy homes, start their own businesses and keep other local businesses going through lines of credit and timely loans.

When times got tough for a client, he would cut them some slack on the repayment schedule — and that kindness, far from being a bad business strategy, helped him keep the bank alive when his clients were panicked and desperate in the tough times. People knew that George Bailey cared about the wellbeing of them individually and of the community as a whole. They knew he was a stand-up guy, so they stood with him when times were worst.

The fact that a financial policy guru for Cato trashed George Bailey, to laughter and applause from the libertarian Wall Street bankers in the audience, is the ultimate sign of how strange and distorted the conservative movement’s values have become.

This new brand of conservatives is taking lines directly from Potter. During an early scene in the film, Potter actually accuses Bailey’s late father of having been a bad businessman. Rushing to his defense, Bailey gives an impassioned retort about the integrity he learned from his father’s business practices. To those conservatives today that worship big business and criticize George Bailey, we offer up the same impassioned defense:

Just remember this… that this ‘rabble’ you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.

For progressives, there are better ways to be a successful businessman than to take home enormous bonuses and operate at the expense of the community. For conservatives, taking lines from the villain of a script is the new normal. Bailey’s quote above reminds me very much of one of my all-time favorite political quotes, from Bobby Kennedy:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

George Bailey understood the sentiment behind that quote. Mr. Potter did not. Our economics should be a reflection of our moral values. Progressives understand that, but the Potter conservatives have lost their way.

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