One of my favorite things to do during the Christmas season is to watch the old movie, "It's a Wonderful Life". I have probably seen it at least 20 times, and it never seems to get old. I think that each time I watch it, I notice something new about it that deepens my appreciation of the story (there were 3 things this year!).
One of things that came to me this year was the contrast between George Bailey and Henry Potter. There are numerous ways to examine their relationship and the applications that can be drawn from it are many. Although I have never done an actual survey in this regard, I seriously doubt that anyone would consider Mr. Potter to be a role model.
Everyone who watches the movie knows that George Bailey is the role model--in spite of all his faults, he is the one that we are supposed to emulate and learn from. The only thing that we are supposed to learn from Mr. Potter is what not to do. Mr. Potter is the "warped, frustrated old man" who seeks to grab as much under his control as possible.
There have been numerous character studies on Mr. Potter, and I am not about to try to reproduce those here; that is not my purpose. Rather, I want us to see that even though Mr. Potter is universally known to be the "bad guy" of the story it is his philosophy which has won the day in American business practices.
Essentially, both George Bailey and Henry Potter are capitalists. They both appear to believe in a free market economy, though they have different attitudes as to the proper way that it should be carried out (but that is not the main subject here). The difference that I want to point out now is where their hearts are at, which helps us to see better what people are doing today.
Mr. Potter's view of capitalism is that it should be used to one's own advantage. Bailey, on the other hand, views capitalism as something that should be used for the good of others. Rarely do you see businesses today that are concerned firstly with the good of others.
Most businesses express a concern for "customer service" but when you really watch their actions, they are only concerned with the customer as a "consumer" rather than as a "human". In other words, their concern is limited to making sure that the customer is happy so that he will return and do more business with them rather than out of an actual care for the person.
In this, we could say that Frank Capra's vision in It's a Wonderful Life has definitely impacted our society in many ways. Yet, in looking at business practices today, we must also say that it is not George Bailey's example that people are following, but Mr. Potter's. I do not think that this is Capra's fault; no, I would guess he was trying to prevent this very thing. I am not merely being cynical here. It does not take much to see this. Yes, there are certainly businesses with godly business practices, but they are few and far between.
It amazes me how clearly this is what has happened. No one wants to be like "Mr. Potter". His greed is what turns his application of capitalism into (essentially) socialism--the desire to control the economy and drive out all competitors. That is what socialism is, in essence, after all--the complete control of all economic endeavors for one's own benefit. What drove Potter to this is his lack of love of neighbor (seen many times in the movie), because that is what allows him to treat people as consumer "cattle" rather than as people.
I am not simply saying here that people today are greedy; no big shocker there. I am saying that people are becoming socialists because of their greed. Imagine a world where people followed George Bailey's example: willing to pinch pennies and never be rich if it is for the greater good of others. At the end of the movie, George Bailey is called "the richest man in Bedford Falls". His richness is the same as what Jesus encourages in us on a daily basis. To ignore this, is to miss the main point of the story.
In summary, George Bailey is a good example of what the Catholic doctrine of distributism would look like if a business owner tried to live this way. Henry Potter is an example of what leads people into socialism, and thus, communism. People are not (and should not be thought of as) consumers; they are humans, each with a distinct accountability before God. Yet, we have become a greedy, big business, country where the standard expectation is that gaining more money is the summum bonum. How did we get here when we had such a good example of the right way to do things? We are not a people that likes to sacrifice for the sake of others, are we?