One of the aspects of libertarianism that I have a love-hate relationship with is the predilection among its adherents to be contrarian – that is, to behave in a way that is opposite from the majority for the sake of being different.
I have a contrarian streak within me, and always have, but the reason chiefly has to do with the fact that I’m doing what makes sense to me, whereas others are interested in going with the flow. It’s why I didn’t buy Bitcoin when it was an obscure concept discussed only among libertarians, and why I’m still not buying it now. Everyone is interested in it, except me.
Where this becomes a problem is when libertarians say things that in many ways come off as purely contrarian.
Look no further than the libertarian revisionist take on Christmas films. Every year now, libertarians are eager to revisit A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life specifically, because they both feature antagonists, Ebenezer Scrooge and Henry Potter, respectively, that work in the lending industry. Both are also portrayed as selfish, self-centered, cruel men. Sensing this as a proxy attack on wealth-generators, libertarians are tempted to defend these men, when they shouldn’t.
They’ll point out that Scrooge’s business helped out the poor and needy obtain small loans. They also claim Potter was the true free market businessman, while George Bailey sold subprime mortgages and engaged in fractional reserve banking practices.
Let’s address Scrooge first; I’ll get to Potter latter.
First, let’s point out that libertarianism deals with aggression and coercion. That’s it. It doesn’t differentiate between a wretched man and a kind man.
And make no mistake, Scrooge is definitely the former, not the latter, and that is the moral of A Christmas Carol. He’s not a criminal, and the story never claims he’s broken the law. The words “cheat,” “steal, “swindle,” and “rob” are not used once in the original story. He comes off as obeying the law for practical reasons, as violators are likely to lose their money and get shipped off to Botany Bay.
The story also involves no new legislation or legal reforms, because problem isn’t the government allowing certain practices to go on, but Scrooge’s hardened heart that makes him a miserably lonely old man.
We dislike him because he’s unnecessarily mean, rude, selfish, and inconsiderate with everyone in his life. It’s his personality and demeanor that makes him the villain, not his career.
Simply replace Scrooge with his nephew, Fred, and you see what I mean. Fred could easily carry out the same profession as Scrooge, but his response would contain a lot more tact and charm, even if the answer is fundamentally the same.
Speaking of Fred, what precisely is admirable about Scrooge’s treatment of his only living relative whom he blames for the death of his sister? (she died giving birth to Fred)
What does the story focus on – the wheeling and dealing business practices Scrooge used to amass his fortune, or the way he completely ignores a relative that treats him kindly despite the profound lack of courtesy Fred receives back, and for no justifiable reason?
When does one of the Christmas spirits introduce Scrooge to a person he swindled.?
A successful businessman doesn’t have to be obsessed with money, yet that is precisely how Scrooge needlessly loses his beautiful young finance. She didn’t care that he had so much money (that might have been a point in his favor); his entire life was now centered around it to the point where she realized he didn’t love her and never would.
The long and short of it, is that you can be a wealthy business owner who earned every cent legitimately, yet still be a total jackass nobody likes and actually despises. Or you can be a rich man who is considered of others, sees the importance of family ties, doesn’t foul it up with a pretty maiden, uses their position to care for others whose ill circumstances are beyond their control so that they too care be productive members of society, and have respect and admiration of their community that as a result views the wealthy as those whom they should aspire to be rather than regard as soulless heathens.
To me, the point of A Christmas Carol is that you should be the latter.
Now, let’s turn to Henry Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life. According to the contrarian/libertarian perspective, he was the true hero of the film who relied on the free market to provide goods and services. His only illegal act was keeping money Uncle Billy accidentally leaves in his lap – I’ve even heard some libertarians say that technically it’s not theft, because George Bailey’s Building and Loan owned him the money, so it was really his.
Imagine if I loaned you $1,000. You didn’t pay it back, but your forgetful uncle accidental gave me $500 of your money along with a newspaper or magazine. You came to me asking for an additional loan because you can’t find that money you needed to pay for that month’s mortgage or some such. Rather than tell you that I have the money your uncle left with me on accident and discuss the situation on an honest footing, I denounce you as a careless idiot, accuse you of having an extramarital affair with a specific girl in town, spending the money on her, revel in your financial straits, then call the mortgage lender to initiate some sort of legal action against you.
What I describe above is what Potter does in the film. Does that sound like the behavior of a man who engages in wholly honest business practices? Does it sound like the type of guy who is above the use of government to stifle competition, when he is using government to get an innocent man thrown in jail?
Unlike Scrooge, Potter is a small-town monopolist thug who the film heavily implies uses his resources and power to ensure he is the only game in town, except for the Building and Loan. The whole reason he is a board member of the Building and Loan and buys up shares during the 1929 Stock Market Crash is because he wants to shut it down so no one can live in houses except the ones he owns. It’s no different than a company town, except the company actually owns the property. Potter’s monopoly is implicitly coercive.
To be sure, George Bailey definitely engages in fractional reserving banking, and his mortgage loans are highly questionable. However, when George’s loan business faces the Crash and has no money, he bails it out with the cash he was given for his honeymoon. He takes responsibility for it. He doesn’t demand the government do so.
Also, the film demonstrates that he is a threat to Potter because unlike the “warped, frustrated old man,” Bailey doesn’t have a high salary. He doesn’t make money for himself, nor did his father. All the money went back into the business, which allows them to undercut Potter’s rent.
This is the premise for a critical scene between Potter and his rent-collector, who warns that Bailey is cutting into Potter’s renting racket. As the only game in town, Potter can charge high rent so that the “discontented, lazy rabble” can never save up enough money to buy a house of their own. But George’s business offers home mortgages at rates ordinary people can afford.
But why doesn’t somebody just set up a competing renting industry to Potter? A libertarian might ask.
Notice during this scene Potter is informed a U.S. senator is waiting to see him. He gruffly replies, “tell the senator to wait.”
If you were in a room with a very wealthy man who barks orders to a member one of the most exclusive groups in the world, a political entity no less, what would you assume about his dealings?
You assume he owns the senator and has him do his will.
The idea that Potter is a free market entrepreneur providing legitimate services is libertarians seeing what they want to see in the character the film, but isn’t there, and it takes a contrarian to miss the obvious.
A man who is above the use of government to shut down or stifle competitors isn’t going to falsely accuse someone of swindling his business’ money to cover the costs of having a girl on the side and then make a fraudulent police report about it in the hopes they get arrested and imprisoned.
Plus, I’ve spent my fair share of time in small towns and their inner workings. I can tell you now, there are plenty of Potters in the world today, and they have no interest in allowing competition to open up. They don’t want outsiders coming in who force them to lower their prices or rates, and they prevent it through the use of local ordinances, business licensing, and land use zoning restrictions that prohibit building above a certain size and height befitting their industry. “Grandfathering” is a great way for people to get regulations enacted that don’t apply to them but discourage future competition.
Modern Potters also contribute heavily to local lawmakers’ campaigns, so when the councilmember wants to meet them, they too can tell the receptionist “tell them to wait.”
I’ll conclude with this: Nobody raises a son in the hopes they grow up to be like Scrooge or Potter. Nobody wants an uncle or grandfather like them, and none of them want them around during the Christmas season.
Their soullessness is what we are meant to despise, not their day jobs.