What's wrong with Pottersville?
In the film, the principal character, George Bailey (James Stewart ’32), is given the opportunity to see what his small town of Bedford Falls, N.Y., would have been like if he were never born. In this alternate reality, the devious town financier, Henry Potter, has exercised his economic and political power to control all aspects of the town, including its name, now Pottersville. The formerly quiet hamlet has been transformed into a bustling late night destination, its family-owned storefronts replaced by neon lights advertising cabaret shows, strip teases and prodigious amounts of alcohol.
It was Capra’s intention to display, and it is understood by the vast majority of audiences, that the town has regressed significantly under Potter’s rule. And yet, within the framework of many contemporary political ideologies, it is not at all clear that Bedford Falls is any better than Pottersville. Indeed, whether one is a fiscal conservative or a liberal libertarian, Pottersville looks like progress. And so we must look beyond the initial revulsion most feel when George Bailey stumbles into his transformed town and ask ourselves: What’s actually wrong with Pottersville?
For those “pro-growth” fiscal conservatives for whom economic expansion and development are the primary metrics of a healthy society, the booming Pottersville must be seen as a significant improvement over the sleepy Bedford Falls. In the alternate reality, we see a town with more people and more business — an apparent magnet for residential and commercial development. And yet, despite Pottersville’s superiority by virtue of objective economic statistics, it remains viscerally less desirable than its counterpart. What’s wrong?
And for those “progressives” and libertarians for whom personal freedom is the primary metric by which social advancement is measured, Pottersville ought clearly to be the preferable option. Henry Potter has provided myriad means, nonexistent in traditional Bedford Falls, for individuals to express themselves emotionally and sexually, relieving the repression of more old-fashioned days. Pottersville has freed its residents from the social stigmas of the past, allowing for fuller expression of personal freedom. And yet, despite objectively higher standards of personal liberty (as “liberty” is commonly understood), Pottersville is a town of the emotionally and spiritually downtrodden. What’s wrong?
Pottersville, it turns out, provides a substantial challenge to those for whom economic growth and personal freedom are the primary signifiers of social and political progress. In the coarseness of its culture and in the sullenness of its people, this imagined town demonstrates the naivete of holding up increases in the success of business or in perceived liberty of individual action as intrinsic goods.
Henry Potter had, by objective measures, improved the economy of the Bailey’s hometown, but at what cost to the community? A profit-before-people mentality swept the people of Pottersville, demonstrated not only by storefronts which peddle vice, but also by personal interaction. The erstwhile bartender (now bar owner) Nick tells George that “we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast.” The local drugstore has been replaced by a predatory pawn broker. In this atmosphere of distrust fed by the glamorization of selfishness, even the kind-hearted Mrs. Bailey refuses to take strangers into her boarding house. This economic growth spurt led by Potter, this aggregation of “utility,” has indeed harmed the town and its people by institutionalizing a depersonalizing and socially destructive ethos of individual economic gain over interpersonal responsibility.
The “progressive” libertarians tell us that we can “live and let live” and freely express our desires as long as we do not interfere with another’s liberty. In Pottersville, however, we see that the personal decisions of individual members of the community, just as their economic decisions, cannot be seen as isolated and insulated from the community at large; rather, they constitute a moral ecology — a culture. Ernie Bishop, the happily married cab driver of Bedford Falls, reveals with disgust that in this alternate reality that “my wife ran away three years ago and took the kid.” Violet Bick, the somewhat troubled but ultimately virtuous young woman of Bedford Falls, is seen being dragged from a dance club by police. The unfettered personal liberty so lauded by so many well-meaning ideologues, when freed from the constraints of responsibility, is fundamentally destructive not only to one’s own inherent dignity, but to the culture as a whole, thus affecting all members of the community.
Considering the challenge that Pottersville poses to the ideological individualist - both economic and social - Clarence Odbody’s final heartwarming (but somewhat cheesy) reminder to George Bailey that “no man is a failure who has friends” takes on a much more profound meaning. Human fulfillment, we learn, consists not of individual proficiency at augmenting personal wealth or expressing personal liberty as such, but of regard for others through interpersonal relationships and responsibilities.
Brandon McGinley is a politics major from Pittsburgh. He can be reached at email@example.com.