The Wheeler Dealers

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Given the
importance of educating the public about economics and related matters,
it is easy to understand why popular
films
often become
the subjects
of detailed analysis
along these lines
; they are highly visible and reviewing them
from an economic or political perspective serves to draw greater
attention to important lessons. Still, I cannot help but feel a
slight discomfort at the prospect of anyone rejecting a piece of
entertainment or culture solely on the basis of its propagation
of unsound economic or political doctrines, or accepting it solely
for the soundness of the same. Casablanca may well be a
heavy-handed bit of interventionist propaganda
, but it is widely
regarded as an example of the highest artistic achievements possible
through the medium of film — I purchased a used VHS copy of it from
the same place I purchased the film I shall discuss below. Similarly,
I imagine there is no shortage of films or other works of fiction
which exalt liberty and the free market, but which make for positively
execrable art or entertainment. There is always a danger, however
slight, of creating a kind of reverse political
correctness
, turning a healthy concern with educating the public
into an
unhealthy and fanatical obsession
.

It is with
slight trepidation, then, that I approach the task at hand: that
of bringing to light the extraordinary economic, political, and
cultural insight of the lighthearted 1963 romantic comedy The
Wheeler Dealers
, starring James Garner and Lee Remick. Before
doing anything else, then, let me remind the reader that taste is
largely subjective, and this is not primarily intended to be a review
of the film's entertainment or artistic value (though I do personally
give it high marks in both categories). The reader may find himself
less amused by The Wheeler Dealers than I was; this is not
a catastrophe.

What is
not in dispute, however, is that The Wheeler Dealers hits
the nail on the head concerning a wide range of economic and social
issues. Though it is first and foremost meant to be an entertaining
and funny film, and not a dense tract on economics or politics,
The Wheeler Dealers gets such matters right several times
(in a manner which this reviewer found wickedly funny).

The central
character of the film is Henry Tyroon (James Garner), a New England-born
Yale man who went to Texas to get rich and has since changed his
clothes and accent to match his new lifestyle (this may sound rather
familiar
, but as far as I can ascertain, the resemblance is
merely superficial). Since then, Tyroon has gained a reputation
as a "Wheeler Dealer." What is a "Wheeler
Dealer," the reader asks? The film provides an answer: "[A]
wheeler dealer is somebody that loves to find places for money to
go. It’s like hitchin’ on to a star. You may zoom up to the sky
on a mighty pretty ride." If he doesn't happen to take off
to the stars, it is hardly a problem; Tyroon just "find[s]
a way for the government to take three-quarters of the loss."

This latter
point is of significance, for one of the main activities in which
Tyroon engages is that of tax evasion. This is one of the great
charms of The Wheeler Dealers — the protagonist repeatedly
finds clever and creative ways to cheat the taxman, with not one
iota of hand wringing or sermonizing from any character in the film
about how this practice shortchanges "honest American taxpayers,"
or undermines the government's attempts to provide "necessary
services." No paragon of the American proletariat is thrown
in to the narrative in order to scold Tyroon for his callousness
toward the needs of the all-benevolent federal government. Indeed,
a thoroughly working-class taxi driver is shown refusing to make
a deal with Tyroon on which both men win (mutually
beneficial exchange
, what?), believing that it is too good to
be true, until he is reassured that, in the end, "the taxman
loses." As Charles Adams
has demonstrated
, Tyroon is really upholding one of the oldest
and most deeply-rooted American traditions.

With
"corporate scandals" so much in the news of late, LRC
readers in particular may relish the film's depiction of Federal
securities regulators (if memory serves, the film's thinly-veiled
version of the SEC is called the "Federal Securities Commission").
John Astin delivers a wonderful performance as a bored Federal regulator,
desperate for some juicy new victims whose names and faces he can
plaster all over the newspapers. The lack of extant scandals strikes
him not as a sign that all is well with the world, but as
an aberrant dry spell for his agency: "I double checked
the Consolidated Silicon stock transfer. It's all perfectly legal,
boss, the company's in the clear!" he exclaims in frustration.
To make the scene even more hilarious, Astin talks over his troubles
with an older regulator, exasperatedly declaring, "We haven't
had a really good victim since we smashed Zirkon Aviation
Products!" His superior, in return, waxes nostalgic for the
days after the 1929 crash, saying that it was "heaven."
The film's fictional version of the SEC come off not so much like
incorruptible defenders of the public welfare and the fairness of
the marketplace, but at blood-hungry witch-hunters willing to ruin
a man's life, thriving off the misery of the American people.1

The whole
scene is, in essence, a comical illustration of Westley's
Law
and more generally of the very real operation
of government bureaucracies
. If there is no problem in its field,
the agency seeks to simply manufacture one, either by neglect or
by deliberate engineering, in order to justify its own continued
existence and overlarge budget. The
real world
has seen many a "white-collar crime" case
brought (and won) simply to
gratify the ego and desire for publicity of the prosecutor involved
.
The Wheeler Dealers is an exception among a film industry
that, for the past few decades, at least, generally seems to think
that Federal regulatory agencies and bureaucracies are bold and
unflappable defenders of the weak, without which American society
and commerce would grind to a halt.

Finally,
James Garner's Henry Tyroon is not a moustache-twirling capitalist
seeking to exploit and oppress everyone he meets; he is depicted
as a man who tries to find things the value of which other men have
overlooked. In one of his dealings, he buys a pretentious New York
City restaurant and improves its business by giving customers even
more of what they wanted in the first place: "I figured if
the bar is more profitable than the dining area, and people like
being shoved around, well, then you double the size of the bar
and shove 'em a little harder." In short, Tyroon is an entrepreneur
— a man who takes on risk and seeks out new, untested opportunities
for productive investment. The portrayal is predominately sympathetic.
Tyroon is certainly not a saint — he uses some ethically
questionable techniques to unload some old stock (though the final
scene absolves him of having done any real or lasting harm), and
he sometimes pulls Tom
Sawyer-style maneuvers
in which he gets a potential buyer to
believe something is worth more than most other men would estimate
— but despite all of this, Tyroon's code is not merely one of crass
materialism, à la Gordon
Gekko
. "You don't do wheelin' and dealin' for money,"
Tyroon says, "You do it for fun. Money's just a way
of keepin' score." This attitude toward wealth does not exactly
rival the philosophical sophistication of Rerum Novarum or
Quadragesimo Anno, but I suppose shall take what I can get
from Hollywood.

A theme
which receives some minor attention in the film, and also highlights
a point made by Austrian economists throughout the twentieth century,
is the American fear in the 1950s and '60s of being eclipsed by
the Soviet Union in various fields. Henry Tyroon, seeking to sell
stock in a company that once made "widgets" (evidently
an obscure and little-known tool that fell out of use around the
same time as the horse-drawn carriage) circulates calls for America
to regain its supremacy over the U.S.S.R. in "widgetry."
The public panics, fearing that the Soviet system has the edge over
American capitalism when it comes to widgetry (the comparison with
the field of rocketry is amusing here, though likely unintended
by the filmmakers; like the film's version of widgets, space rockets
in the '50s and '60s were largely useless from an economic standpoint,
but the ability of the U.S.S.R. to outdo the Americans was paradoxically
given as evidence that American capitalism might be inferior to
Soviet communism). This bit of subterfuge on Tyroon's part is only
a very small part of the film, but provides a window on the attitudes
of the period. The fear of communist supremacy was quite widespread
in the 1950s and '60s, but had men listened more closely to Ludwig
von Mises, they would have known such fears were
grossly misplaced
. This little vignette in The Wheeler Dealers
should shatter any impression modern viewers may have about
America having been "zealously devoted to the supremacy of
laissez-faire" during the dark and repressive '50s;
American leaders sought to fight the Soviets not because they were
absolutely certain that capitalism was superior to communism, but
because they were very much afraid that it was not.

The
Wheeler Dealers touches lightly on economics in ways that bring
big laughs; it also tackles the culture in ways that might tickle
the funny bones of libertarians, their sympathizers, and men of
general good sense. Our modern era of open-container laws, mandatory
seat belts, and growing restrictions on "cell phone driving"
would no doubt be scandalized by Henry Tyroon's convertible with
built-in Scotch dispenser, no apparent seat belts, and no less than
two telephones, both of which he uses at the same time. No,
he does not crash
it into a tree or die a grisly death by the roadside
.

One of
my favorite scenes of the entire film was a satirical missile aimed
straight at the heart of the absurd notion of "Art for art's
sake," the strange and peculiar 20th century notion
that holds that art can only truly be "art" if nobody
actually wants to buy it (this has been the first and foremost excuse
for forcing a city's taxpayers to pay for hideous eyesores that
said taxpayers would ordinarily demand be hauled away by said city's
sanitation workers). Henry Tyroon is invited to a fancy art exhibition,
showcasing the work of a modern artist who paints "scratchy"
abstract paintings (today such paintings would nearly be considered
reactionary, if a quarter of what one hears about the art
world is true). While the critics and the "art lovers"
praise the merits of the artist's work, the artist speaks privately
with Henry, scoffing at the words of his adoring critics while ironing
out an elaborate business proposition with Henry that will ideally
enable both of them to make boatloads of money off of credulous
art lovers. Even the most "brilliant," avant-garde, rule-breaking
artist, the movie seems to say, can still be a businessman at heart
without ceasing to be a "genuine" artist.

In stark
contrast to most movies, the sexual morality on display is… well,
it is still pretty far beyond anything this Irish-American
Catholic can quite endorse. Still, it was refreshing to watch a
movie in which the protagonist and the leading lady did not
jump into bed together within 48 hours of having met each other,
which appears to be the general rule nowadays. It was pleasant to
see a woman who insists that she is "hardly the pure-as-driven-snow
type" simultaneously insist that a one-night-stand is completely
out of the question; the juxtaposition of these two attitudes would
scarcely be comprehensible to more than a small proportion of my
peers. I was also amused by Molly Thatcher (Lee Remick) repeating
an explanation she heard from a prospective beau on why sex actually
prevents cavities; the absurd logic on display is a perfect
match for some of the nonsense that comes out of the mouths of real
scientists today, and what has come out of the mouths of real cads
since long before "The Wheeler Dealers" was ever made.
This was just one of a few little jabs the film took at the ridiculous
notion that there are no meaningful differences between the male
and the female of the human species; a hilariously ironic spectacle
at a women's business club meeting was another such jab, the latter
one satirizing both condescending male chauvinism and the
feminist propensity for indignation.

I will
not repeat the cliché that "such a film could not be
made today." A film like The Wheeler Dealers could be
made today, but it could only suffer one of two fates: a firestorm
of indignation from all the usual suspects, or a virtual media blackout
in which the film's existence would be barely acknowledged, and
its run in theaters was over almost as soon as it began. I cannot
say which is worse.

The
Wheeler Dealers is not without flaws, of course. The protagonists
are not saints, in their personal lives or in their business dealings.
They are probably too reckless with money and a little too willing
to bend the truth in order to make a buck, and let it simply be
said that there is nobody in sight who seems willing to become a
martyr for the preservation of chastity. Still, I found it to be
an entertaining and funny film, and even if the reader does not,
he may be interested to see the depiction of economics and culture
in The Wheeler Dealers.

  1. I do not
    presume to insult those individuals who are employed by
    Federal agencies, most of whom are surely as honest as anybody
    else, both original sin and God's grace being as much present
    in government employees as Wall Street businessmen; the functioning
    of the institution as a whole, however, is generally beyond even
    the control of any "good eggs" whose motivations are
    genuine and honest.

August
21, 2008

Seán
O' Hara [send him mail]
is a senior at Boston College originally hailing from the Republic
of Vermont
. He majors in history.

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