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.