The Dowager Countess of Grantham Denounces Statism

Libertarian fans of Downton Abbey got a special treat last night when Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, let loose with an excoriation of statism right out of John Stuart Mill. Debating whether the village hospital should be merged into the larger regional hospital in 1925, Lady Grantham exclaimed:

For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives, and their argument is always the same — fewer costs, greater efficiency. But the result is the same, too. Less control by the people, more control by the state until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist….

The point of a so-called great family is to protect our freedoms. That is why the barons made King John sign Magna Carta.

Rosamund: Mama, we’re not living in 1215. And the strength of great families like ours is going, that’s just fact. 

Countess: Your great-grandchildren won’t thank you when the state is all-powerful because we didn’t fight.

Of course, the Dowager Countess is not a libertarian, nor a liberal, but a reactionary aristocrat. Still, libertarian ideas crop up wherever people feel their liberties being infringed. And such ideas were being enunciated by genuine liberals in that era. An editorial in The Nation in 1900, thought to have been written by its founding editor E. L. Godkin, mourned the decline of liberty and liberalism:

To the principles and precepts of Liberalism the prodigious material progress of the [19th century] was largely due.  Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us.  But it now seems that its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible.  In the politics of the world, Liberalism is a declining, almost a defunct force. 

Liberalism was giving way, he said, to the forces of socialism and imperialism; and “international struggles on a terrific scale” were the likely result, struggles that indeed had already begun by 1925 and would only get worse in the lives of Lady Grantham’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Her case against hospital consolidation reminds me of John Stuart Mill’s “objections to government interference” in On Liberty:

The objections to government interference, when it is not such as to involve infringement of liberty, may be of three kinds.

The first is, when the thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it. This principle condemns the interferences, once so common, of the legislature, or the officers of government, with the ordinary processes of industry….

The second objection is more nearly allied to our subject. In many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education—a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal…. Without these habits and powers, a free constitution can neither be worked nor preserved, as is exemplified by the too-often transitory nature of political freedom in countries where it does not rest upon a sufficient basis of local liberties. The management of purely local business by the localities, and of the great enterprises of industry by the union of those who voluntarily supply the pecuniary means, is further recommended by all the advantages which have been set forth in this Essay as belonging to individuality of development, and diversity of modes of action. Government operations tend to be everywhere alike. With individuals and voluntary associations, on the contrary, there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience….

The third, and most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government, is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power. Every function superadded to those already exercised by the government, causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts, more and more, the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government, or of some party which aims at becoming the government. 

If Lady Grantham had not read Mill – her granddaughter Lady Mary said last night that aristocratic young ladies were taught only “French, prejudice and dance steps” – we can be sure that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes did. So three cheers for Julian Fellowes and his injection of Millian liberty into television drama.

It’s interesting that the New York Times recapper noticed Lady Grantham’s speech, while the Wall Street Journal did not.