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home | Tea Party Economist | Downton Abbey: Soap Opera for Proper . . .

Downton Abbey: Soap Opera for Property Rights

Gary Nirth - February 14, 2013
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Reality Check

I am not a big Downton Abbey fan. I watched the first half a dozen episodes, but then I realized that the thing was turning into a very expensive soap opera. I stopped watching. I am a Foyle's War fan. I prefer period piece murder mysteries to period piece soap operas.

I did not connect with the plight of the younger members of the family. They seemed shallow. I also thought the scheming bad guy and bad woman among the downstairs employees are just too dedicated to their venality. There were caricatures. But I will say this: the bad guys are downstairs. This is a very good thing. It indicates a rejection of a century of Labor Party propaganda.

I thoroughly enjoyed Julian Fellowes when he co-starred in a modern version of the same story, Monarch of the Glen. It was an updated version of a family that had a huge albatross: inherited land and a rundown castle. The family had run out of money. Could the estate be saved? Fellowes used the same theme as the script writer for Downton Abbey. But he set it where it really belongs, namely, in the post-World War I era in Great Britain.


About 25 years ago, I sat on an airplane next to a man who was a Jacobite. Most people have never heard of the Jacobites. I knew about them only because I am a specialist in early modern European history. It did not occur to me that they still existed, but they do. A Jacobite was a follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose revolt against Great Britain failed at the Battle of Culloden in 1745. He was a Catholic. He represented the Highland Catholic forces. After his defeat, Scotland permanently became Protestant, in the sense that it is not Catholic. Of course, it is not particularly Protestant today. But it is not Catholic.

He told me that the castles that Jacobite families had owned in the mid-18th century are still owned by the families. These days, however, they can make money only by opening the doors to tourists. He said that it is part of each family's obligation to supply full-time managers. For about two years, a young couple takes over the administration of the family castle. If they did not, the castles would be forfeited to the British monarchy. I do not know if what he was telling me was true, although it sounds plausible. He certainly seemed committed to the idea that it was a family responsibility to provide this kind of leadership, because they still hated the Queen, and they were determined to keep the family properties from being transferred to the monarchy.

I am not convinced that television shows shape the thinking of those who view them. I think shows are popular mainly because they already adopt the outlook of the viewers. But in the case of Downton Abbey, I could be wrong. There is nothing in the lives of somebody living today that would be recognizable to somebody living at Downton Abbey a century ago. Yet the show is phenomenally popular around the world. So was Monarch of the Glen, but not on this scale.

The basic theme of the show is duty. The second theme is inheritance. This is remarkable. You would not imagine that the issue of the inheritance of an aristocratic family's land would be a popular theme in modern times. The class conflict of the era did exist, especially in Great Britain. But for a century, textbooks and popular culture have been produced by people who oppose the upper classes, and who favor the democratic and social democratic (socialist) policies of the lower classes. Yet in this case, the most popular soap opera in the world stands behind the aristocrats. The script favors the preservation of the inheritance. It is about all of the problems facing the post-World War I aristocratic generation.

Maggie Smith's character is J. R. Ewing in drag: the person we love to hate. But there is this difference: she cares about inherited status. He cared about money. That is the difference between an American boomer buying his way to the top and a British aristocrat trying to keep him out.


This sense of duty, which is a sense of duty to both the past and the future, is an inherently conservative theme. Edmund Burke would have recognized it instantly in 1790. In a very real sense, the show is about competition between the free market and the aristocratic culture. The free market is driven by internally driven men who wish to accumulate capital. After World War I, the rising capitalist order was able to offer higher wages to employees who would have been stuck for all their lives in service to the aristocracy. It was the competition between Edmund Burke's conservative vision and Adam Smith's capitalist vision.

Yet Edmund Burke was a great fan of Adam Smith, and Adam Smith was a great fan of Edmund Burke. The story of Downton Abbey is the story of the clash of civilizations -- a clash that was inherent from the beginning in the social philosophy of conservative Edmund Burke and the economic philosophy of Adam Smith.

Neither of those men understood what was about to take place under their noses in the 1790. For the first time in history, economic growth of 2.5% per annum was about to take hold of the Anglo-American civilization. Nothing like this had been seen before. Nothing like this was even conceivable, although the title of Adam Smith's book, The Wealth of Nations (1776), did point to the possibility. In theory, Smith was defending a system in which such growth is possible. But the outcome of it was simply inconceivable to him or anyone else.

The world of 1850 was not recognizable to the dwellers of the world in 1800, yet they accepted it, because it grew slowly, not overnight. Every 50 years, the world that had been in existence was overwhelmed by a completely new world technologically and economically. Societies made the adjustment, but in doing so, new social philosophies began to take over. Socialism was one of them.

Here we have a situation in which the philosophy of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published in 1790, is the core of an international soap opera. This really is inconceivable to me. The popularity in the 1970s of Upstairs, Downstairs was considerable. But that series died because of the transition to the world that followed World War I. The show could not keep the attention of the viewers. It was the story of the confrontation between the economic growth of Adam Smith and the aristocratic culture that had been dominant for centuries in Great Britain. The conflict had begun in earnest by 1800 with the development of the steam engine's technology and its applications to Western institutions. It was the upstart Scots, with their "infernal machines," that overthrew the British aristocrats. The Protestant Scots bought them out. But it took a century.

What has astounded me in all this is that the bad guys are in the lower classes, which means the good guys of the textbooks that have been written for popular consumption for the last century, are the heart of this soap opera. Everybody is rooting for the head of the household. The viewers do not want it to be sold. The outlook of the British Labor Party, the Fabian Society, and mass democracy is not upheld in the scripts.

The American tradition has always been different. There was never much of a visible aristocracy in the United States. I am not saying that it does not exist. The super-rich do exist, and in many ways they act like dynasties. But they are not visible. The sons and daughters of this aristocratic class have adopted the outlook of the Eastern establishment of the Republican Party. They are Rockefeller people. They are all good democrats in the sense of a little D. I would assume that this is also case among the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Yet this soap opera fascinates the general public of educated people. After all, it is being run on PBS. Who would have thought that?


The basic themes of duty and inheritance cannot be escaped by any civilization. These are fundamental themes of life. They are covenantal themes: How shall the inheritance be used by the succeeding generation? This is a crucial question of life. A great deal of the book of Ecclesiastes is devoted to this theme. The first nine chapters of the book of Proverbs are also devoted to it: the ethical foundation of inheritance. It is a legitimate theme, and it is inherent in every social order. Those who build up capital want to know what the next generation is going to do with it. Meanwhile, the next generation wants to know when they are going to get their hands on it.

What I see in the popularity of this soap opera is the revival of concern about the nature of inheritance. The inheritance is broader than just money. Money as the main core inheritance was a mistake easily made by the middle-class audience that read Adam Smith and the writings of his successors. But, ultimately, the concern really is that of Edmund Burke. He discussed society as being a compact, which would better be called a covenant, among three generations: generations in the grave, generations in the present, and future generations. There is continuity in history. This continuity is more than simply economic growth and corporate expansion. It has to do with families.

Here we have a soap opera which raises the ancient themes from the book of Ecclesiastes by way of Edmund Burke. Yet the show is enormously popular. I would not have guessed it. As Julian Fellowes has said, he did not guess it.

I am all in favor of the basic themes of this soap opera. I do not want to watch it, but I applaud it. The question of inheritance, as well as the question of duty with respect to the transfer of that inheritance, are the inescapable themes of social survival.

It is at the heart of the great battle over education today. Because of the World Wide Web, it is now possible for families to reclaim education from the state. The public school textbook view of inheritance is tied closely to the view of inheritance of the Progressive movement. It has to do with the right of the state to tax inheritances, thereby dispersing the capital to the state. The inheritance tax is one of the great evils of the 20th century. It is based on envy.


Here we TV have a show which basically is opposed to the idea of confiscatory inheritance taxation. This is a rejection of the whole Progressive ideology. It is opposed to social democracy, which is Europe's way of saying the word "socialism." Millions of people are rooting for the aristocrats. Who would have imagined this? They are cheering for those who have accumulated capital from the past, and who are dedicated to preserving it down through the generations.

So, while I am not a big fan of Downton Abbey, I am surely a big fan of its basic themes.

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