Monday, December 23, 2013

What if Henry F. Potter Had Never Been Born?

My favorite Christmas movie is It’s a Wonderful Life. I have watched it at least 50 times, but the final scene never fails to bring a tear to the eye of this hopelessly sentimental romantic.

The basic premise, for those of you who have never seen the movie, is how much the good deeds we do affect those around us. George Bailey, on the brink of suicide, is shown by his guardian angel Clarence how Bedford Falls, George’s community, would have changed if George had never been born.

As much as I like the movie, I have always been a little bothered by its portrayal of Bailey’s nemesis, Henry F. Potter, played brilliantly by Lionel Barrymore. Potter is the personification of “heartless capitalism.” He mistreats people, eschews charity of any kind, and has only one goal in life: the accumulation of wealth. The idea of sacrificing profit to help others is foreign to him.

I wouldn’t want to be Potter and I wouldn’t want to work for Potter. But is the picture the movie paints totally fair to Potter or, more generally, to profit-seeking capitalism? The best way to answer the question is to ask same question the movie uses to evaluate George Bailey’s contributions: what would have happened to Bedford Falls if Henry Potter had never been born?

  • The town’s bank would have failed in the depression. It survived only because Potter was there to bail it out. All of bank’s depositors, instead of getting 50 cents on the dollar, would have lost their money.
  • The Bailey Building and Loan would have failed after George’s father died. George’s incompetent Uncle Billy was slated to take over the business when George’s father died. That didn’t happen only because Henry Potter convinced the board to close it unless George took over. Without Potter’s actions as director, Uncle Billy would have taken over and almost certainly would have ruined the institution.
  • Poorer people who could not afford to build a house in George Bailey’s Bailey Park wouldn’t have rental housing available because Henry Potter wasn’t there to build it.
  • Adults in Bedford Falls would have fewer entertainment choices because the downtown bars and dancing halls wouldn’t exist. Only the amoral capitalist Potter was willing to fund businesses like that.
  • Most of the other businesses in town would not exist. They relied on Potter for capital; according to the movie, Potter controlled the entire town except for Bailey’s building and loan.

So don't be so quick to condemn Mr. Potter. Even heartless capitalists have value.

Happy holidays to all our readers from our resident Scrooge.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2013/12/what-if-henry-f-potter-had-never-been-born-1.html

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Comments

These contrarian insights do bring the scales into better balance, but I think most would still agree that for all his wealth (and social utility) Potter was morally bankrupt. Yin always has its yang and you remind us that just as good people sometimes do bad things, even the worst of us -- even Scrooge -- may have something to contribute.

Posted by: Scott Killingsworth | Dec 24, 2013 7:58:48 AM

I'm not holding up Potter as a model of morality, but capitalism's accomplishments don't depend on morality. Even someone like Potter whose sole goal is wealth accumulation can benefit others in a capitalistic system. The success of capitalism, unlike many failed philosophies, doesn't depend on people having ideal motives.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Dec 24, 2013 8:23:19 AM

Heartless Capitalist or Criminal? Let's not forget that Potter committed a criminal act when he pocketed the lost property of George Bailey. Potter deprived George Bailey of his property by a criminal act, not by market forces or capitalism. What he could not accomplish in a free market, he was able to by theft. His conduct was beyond immoral, it was criminal. Your point is well taken however as to the knee jerk reaction by many including myself to make Potter the boogey man. But for the Potters in this world, we would not have Potter 2.0 in Gordon Gekko! ;) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8y6DJAeolo

Posted by: Matt Green | Jan 10, 2014 11:56:30 AM

Matt,

You're right. I actually had a reference to Potter's not reporting the lost cash in my original draft of the post, but edited it out since it didn't really pertain to the main point of the post.

Overlooking Potter's possible criminal liability is one of the two serious legal inaccuracies in the movie. The other is the idea that a supposedly criminal action by George can be cured if his friends come up with enough cash to replace what was lost.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jan 10, 2014 12:15:53 PM

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