Downton Fever

Column by Jim Davies.

Exclusive to STR

It has struck again; Season Four is upon us, descending like a British influenza. More than six million were infected with Season Two, more than eight million by Season Three; and early reports say the present visitation will lay low over ten million Americans on the next several Sunday evenings. I myself am running a temperature.

For the few whose immune system has kept them healthy, Downton Abbey is a tale in the making (by Julian Fellowes) of a fictional aristocratic English family and its servants, on a large estate in Yorkshire--filmed mostly at the real Highclere Castle in Hampshire. In my opinion, it's well told and very well acted, portraying dozens of characters in a cross section of country life in England of a century ago starting in 1912, at about 3½ years per season.

Overall, the saga tackles the huge social shift which in the century preceding 1940 turned a seemingly permanent power élite into a few thousand with plummy accents, reduced to showing visitors round their stately homes for a few pounds a pop. Anarchists, interested in depriving a different élite of its power in our own time, ought to be interested.

The aristocracy survived in England as long as it did because it was less insensitive than, for example, the French one, to the human needs of its servants, tenants and neighbors; and this is picked up in Downton by several examples. One is of a valet to “Lord Grantham,” unjustly accused and convicted of murdering his ex-wife; His Lordship is unstinting in furnishing funds for his defense and, eventually, in getting the conviction overturned. Such beneficiaries of largesse did not receive it by contract, but by grace and favor; and so it was not always provided. But it was provided sufficiently often to ensure mutual trust and respect between upper and lower classes for many centuries, and to avoid the butchery seen in France.

Land holdings were originally allocated to his lieutenants by King William, Duke of Normandy, after he had conquered the country and stolen its resources from Anglo-Saxon peasant owners. Thereafter, society was hierarchical, and the estates were kept with surprisingly little change by “primogeniture,” frequently a legal obligation: ownership was passed only to the eldest son. Younger sons were provided for but expected to serve in the government or church or military or professions – so aristocratic families had all the key institutions in society pretty well under their control; trade alone, with all the risks of entrepreneurship, was usually outside it and so “traders” were despised as second-class. They had it exactly upside down.

Simultaneously, the lock this class had on government apparatus meant that it could and did establish and profit from the monopoly trading operations Adam Smith denounced as “mercantilist”; such as the Honorable East India Company. So it seems trading itself was not disdained, just trading outside its own government-established cartels.

The key crisis in Season One was that – having no son of his own, but three daughters – next in line of succession to Lord Grantham were his cousin and nephew, and both were drowned in the Titanic disaster. Third in line was Matthew Crowley, a more distant cousin, a young lawyer (so hardly even a gentleman!) in a nearby city.

Matthew was imported to Downton and taught the ropes, eventually becoming well accepted and winning the affection and hand of the eldest daughter; with whom he had a son (so at last securing the succession)--only to die in a car crash so he could fulfill a contract on Broadway.

But I digress; while primogeniture was a useful way to keep these properties intact over the long term, the class began to lose its supremacy in the 19th Century. I'd say the start came in 1840, when the protectionist Corn Laws were repealed – ironically by Conservatives, not (Classical) Liberals. This removed an important prop supporting the governing class. They could have survived it, had they been awake to business realities; but they were complacent.

The Corn Laws placed heavy tariffs on imported food, which was being grown more cheaply overseas; their repeal brought down prices of agricultural produce in England, and that was the primary source of aristocratic wealth. Thus, from then on, that wealth was undermined. The owners generally rented their land out to tenant farmers, who did the work and sold the produce; but when the produce produced less revenue, rents stood exposed and so did the owners. Essentially, this was an industry that failed to diversify.

Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, creating prosperity for all, including a new class of nouveaux riches. These merchants and manufacturers competed for labor with the landowners, so a migration from village to city took place – its speed occasioning some hardships of which Dickens wrote. The old upper class had therefore come under economic pressure, for the first time; most of them had no idea how to cope. Lord Grantham is one. His fix had been (prior to Season One) to marry Cora, an American heiress, to pump into the estate a fresh supply of funds. The fix was temporary, but until Matthew opened the books, nobody seemed to understand that. An associated anomaly is that newly-rich Americans, who had often prospered from the absence of government-rigged cartels and privileges, were so foolish as to sink money into the useless bauble of aristocratic titles, instead of into further business expansion to the benefit of themselves, their employees, customers and suppliers.

The troubles mounted; the burgeoning Labour movement proposed higher taxes so as to redistribute wealth from the undeserving rich to the voting poor. To protect themselves from this tsunami, the Liberals, who had formerly been more or less liberal or laissez-faire, felt obliged to move leftwards and join the tax-the-rich crowd, even though they too were made up of aristocrats as well as business people. From 1906 to 1912, they enacted a form of Social Security, for example, to be funded by the wealthy, and in 1911 came the unkindest cut of all when the House of Lords, which had hitherto held a veto power over what the Commons wanted to legislate, finally lost it. Aristocrats were then defenseless. None of this history was explained in the TV presentations, and the extent of the disaster seems not to have been understood by Lord Grantham or his family, nor by many of his real-life contemporaries. Later – much too late, for some – it would be.

On top of all this came the appalling waste of WWI, in which the upper classes, like the rest of society, lost a generation of its young men, and which had to be paid for later by another wave of new taxes (because in 1920, governments didn't yet fully appreciate how easily money could be printed). That's the gloomy background to Season Four.

To Fellowes' credit, in its opening programs, the impact of taxation did surface at last. The new wave included vicious death taxes, which had the probably intended effect of forcing an inheritor to sell off part of the estate so as to pay them, so breaking up what had been kept intact so carefully for so very long. In the story, which may reflect reality, the question however is not so much about the injustice of taxes, as about the least onerous way to submit to that theft. We can see exactly that defeatist attitude today, all around us; nobody likes taxes and all try to minimize their impact, but only anarcho-libertarians challenge them on moral grounds.

So far, I've described the attack on the landed gentry by taxation as targeted theft, and so it was; but was it not also a case of stealing from the stealers? The English aristocracy had after all been formed after violent acts of war and wholesale theft from former land owners; even if that theft was 800 years old, is it not a moral good to rectify it at last? A similar question can be posed about the transfer of land from American Indians to white European settlers, and about the massive government-supported theft of persons and labor in black slavery, and about many other forced transfers all over the world. It's a tough moral question; does there come a time when ancient injustices have to be written off?

We AnCaps prefer to discuss principles rather than policies, and a good thing too. So in moral principle, yes of course; justice always consists in righting wrongs, restoring damaged rights. However, justice even in a free society will also suffer a limit of practical feasibility; for example, murder victims cannot be restored to life, and if an injury is done by an indigent person, no amount of court orders will cause a proper amount of compensation to be paid (although insurance will).

So it is, I suggest, in these difficult questions of history; of course slavery was terrible, but to whom exactly is compensation due? All the slaves are dead, and so are their children and most of their grandchildren. Of course, English landowners inherited their property from violent thieves of 24 generations ago; but to whom might it be justly distributed now? Further: even if it were somehow taken from them and handed to someone shown (how?) to be a descendant of Robin Hood or one of his merry men, what then of the whole principle of property rights in the present day, which are vastly more important--to rich and poor alike?

Comparable and even trickier practical difficulties will arise after E-Day, when so-called “government property” will have to be disposed of. Those assets are huge, or at least they cost a huge amount of stolen money to acquire; but not all of them will have much saleable value. Some will seem to have a negative value, like most of its weapons. To whom would one wish to see an aircraft carrier sold? Yet something must be done with them. Who, and on what basis, will be to benefit from assets with value? And if they are sold at auction, for example, to whom exactly do the proceeds go? Such questions will give us lots to debate – and if I can get in an early bid, I'd favor dividing the sale proceeds to those who most recently paid taxes, in proportion to the loss suffered.

Is the way power was taken from the English aristocracy a precedent for us? Look how it was done: by manoeuvring to gut the Lords of political power, then stealing their wealth by taxes. The first did not abolish power, but merely transferred it to a different group, and what about the second; anyone for that? I hope not. The Libertarian Party is still trying--and failing--to use the first of those methods, and the second is so contrary to the non-aggression principle as to be unfit for polite discussion . . . at Downton Abbey's dinner table or elsewhere.

The group to which power was transferred has arguably damaged freedom and prosperity more than did the ancien régime. The problem is not the people, but the system; power itself.

So, rather, the only way to remove power from today's élite is so to educate those who work for it as to persuade them to quit their jobs. That would have worked with the aristocrats too – how on Earth would they have managed, without valets to dress His Lordship, and ladies' maids to attend to Her Ladyship's coiffure? And cooks and waiters to prepare those 7-course dinners? And a butler, to open the front door? It's really too bad that nobody thought of it.

That may seem flip, but I'm serious. Why is power so attractive? Because it consists of having others submit their wills to yours, by force or the threat of it. Maids and butlers were not forced, of course, but that ruling class did apply force to the whole of society, through the State they dominated, and forelocks were touched to them wherever they went. It's the warp and woof of political life. It's why people join government.

And when subordinates no longer jump to carry out orders, all the fun will disappear, and the balloon will burst. Local thugs in fancy costumes may be among the last to go, but I reasoned in The Fix that when the clerks fail to deliver their pay checks and the cleaners fail to launder their uniforms, even they will, in the last days of government, seek honest work instead.

The few fanatics at the top of the government heap won't need to be convinced. They need only to be undermined.

The real-life equivalents of Lord Grantham had ancestors who took and maintained power over others by violence, have themselves lost it through the violence of voting and taxing. Violence always leaves a residue of resentment. We can do a whole lot better.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Thunderbolt's picture

Superb writing, Jim, as always. It is a gift to be able to weave a tale and finish off with a relevant punch. I discovered today that there is a new bitcoin forex trading company that allows anonymous trading: bit4xdotcom. For those millions of people who cannot find work, this may be very useful, and may help deprive the costumed thugs of their paychecks, as well.

Jim Davies's picture

Thanks, T-bolt.  Like all other revolutions in history, the decline of the influence of the English aristocracy was, as I pointed out, merely a transfer of power, not the elimination of power. That was true even of the American Revolution. The new masters are not necessarily better than the old bunch - si monumentum requiris... Ours, which will eliminate it, will be the first ever.
bit4xdotcom looks very interesting; another first: trading financials privately!  Have you also found a way to trade them profitably? - that would be a find indeed.

Thunderbolt's picture

The site is structured around the familiar metatrader trading program, so I am eager to try my simple manual trading system there on their demo account. My search for an automated system that is consistently profitable has been a failure. It should function as well as the better standard forex brokers, but they have avoided the pairs that include the dollar. A smart move, methinks, for obvious reasons.