Boris, Elizabeth, and the Rot of Inherited Privilege (a retitled Dorf on Law classic)

Dear Dorf on Law Readers: In light of the momentous transformations in the UK over the past week or so -- the forced departure of a privileged buffoon who had somehow become Prime Minister, quickly followed by the death of a ceremonial monarch -- it seems apt to republish a column that I wrote almost three years ago, then titled "Downton Economics (psst, it’s not capitalism!)."  Enjoy!
by Neil H. Buchanan

I am choosing not to write about impeachment today, opting instead to discuss fantasy and history.  Specifically, I want to offer some thoughts inspired by the TV show "Downton Abbey" and its new sequel movie of the same name, the latter of which I saw this past weekend.  But fear not: You do not need to have seen (or liked) the show to follow the argument here.

After briefly summarizing the relevant aspects of the show and film, I will focus on a particularly odd theory that the writers invoke to justify the class-based aristocratic system that they celebrate so fondly.  Whatever else one might say about it, the economic system in "Downton Abbey" is not capitalism.  It is not socialism either, but it might be something akin to communism.  The Dowager Countess would be shocked!

To be clear, "Downton Abbey" is a tarted-up soap opera.  It is a rather fun and satisfying example of the genre, and it is lavishly (and lovingly) produced, but it is at its core middlebrow piffle about highbrow people.  I spent years avoiding it, but when I accidentally started to watch it last year, it turned into a full-on binge of the full 52 episodes over six seasons (2010-16).  The film was much anticipated, and it delivered the warm comforts that made the show so popular with its extremely devoted fans.

Again, however, "Downton Abbey" is not for everyone, and I suspect that a large majority of people reading this column actively avoided the show (as I did before being beaten into submission by its guilty pleasures).  What does one need to know here?

The fictional Downton Abbey is an English estate/castle owned by a fictional Earl, with the story starting in 1912 and extending (in the movie) through 1927.   For all of its flaws, the show presents a believable and occasionally even unsentimental view of the British artistocracy, even within a show that fairly drips with sentimentality.  (Again, I admit that I like it, but I have to be honest with my readers.)

Although I will focus on the economics below, I suspect that it is property law professors who have had the easiest time drawing from the show.  The premiere episode sets in motion a question of inheritance law posed by the demise (on the Titanic!) of the heirs to Downton Abbey.  Male heirs, of course, because under British estate law at the time, they were the only family members who could inherit.

Because of legal obscurities including an "entail" (aka a "fee tail") -- the stuff of first-year property law students' nightmares -- it then turns out that another male, very distant relative stands to become the next Earl of Grantham (the title of the lord of Downton Abbey) upon the death of the current 50-ish Earl.

There is a rather fascinating discussion over the first season or so of the odd interplay of sexism and titled inheritance, where the oldest daughter of the Earl shows her sense of entitlement -- and this is a situation in which that word has real meaning -- by saying that if she were a man, she would be in line to inherit everything.  How unfair!

And it is, except of course that the true unfairness is the absolutely unearned privilege that a male heir would inherit.  Lady Mary's argument thus boils down to saying that a tiny number of women should be able to have things handed to them on a silver platter -- again, quite literal here -- in the same way that their tiny number of male relatives can.  Yes, Mary, I see your point, but ...

In any event, the male heir whom they track down is, horror of horrors, not an aristocrat at all.  My memory is failing me on this, but my recollection is that he was a lawyer (solicitor) or an accountant.  In any event, he worked for a living.  A comfortable middle class living, to be sure, which was much better than most British subjects could hope to enjoy, but still he worked.  Ewwww!

This new heir, Matthew, is then reluctantly brought into the family.  The reluctance goes both ways, not just from the aristocrats who are angry that the obscure historical accidents that turned them into the elite of British society can so cruelly redirect their property into another undeserving man's hands.  The recipient, too, is overwhelmed and thinks that it is all quite absurd.

One of the better sequences in an early episode had Matthew being told that he had to have a butler to, among other things, dress him.  Matthew objects that he can dress himself, and he does what he thinks is a favor for the man assigned to be his butler by saying, "That's quite all right, I've got it."  The flustered servant looks quite beside himself but dares not object to what his master tells him to do (or not to do), standing awkwardly aside and not knowing what to do if not fuss over his better.

Matthew is quickly told by the current Earl that this cannot stand.  Why?  Not because of (or only because of) how things look, but for two much more seemingly defensible reasons: (1) The butler is a man who deserves the dignity of work, so Matthew should not take his dignity away from him by preventing him from doing his job; and (2) The earldom is an economic engine of the community, and if the people who work at Downton Abbey were to be deemed superfluous (and they are, to be clear), then that will destroy the economy.

What to think about this?  I will return to those issues in a moment, but it is important to note that the movie revisits the question -- What is the point of even having something like Downton Abbey? -- and emphatically reiterates its theory that the system of inherited estates was an important economic engine of the British economy.  Notably, they make that argument even though they make clear throughout the run of the show that the British aristocracy in that period was being laid low by how utterly uncompetitive landed estates had become in the modernizing Twentieth Century economy.

One truly interesting aspect of the show's plot, in fact, involves the younger generation of the family trying to modernize their farming operations.  Tenant farmers were scratching livings off the land, but they were paying essentially nothing to the Earl because they were not using modern techniques and thus had virtually nothing to pay in rent.  The family manages to make their estate competitive (at least temporarily) by adopting modern management techniques.

And that is where this could have become truly interesting.  In reality, many British and European aristocrats simply mismanaged their inheritances, and they ended up going broke and selling their remaining properties.  But the Downton Abbey people would be different!  And again, in the movie's 1927, they are back to simply saying that the local economy would collapse without them.

All of this, mind you, is in the context of what makes the show such a guilty pleasure, with galas and balls and dinners for visiting royalty.  Wine flows in obscene quantities, and it is not the cheap stuff.  Food is wasted.  People's time and efforts are wasted.  The idea that we need the aristocracy to drive the economy is based on an especially garish notion that economic waste is what makes us rich -- not that being rich allows us to be wasteful, but that waste is a necessary and sufficient condition for prosperity.

The writers never explain how it could be possible to continue to have so much to waste when no one is actually making anything real.  If everyone is busy dressing each other and pouring out unused wine (or, even worse, dragging their servants on hunting weekends to kill small animals for pure sport), where does the wealth come from?

Interestingly, there is a good argument along these lines for the continued existence to this day of the British royal family.  Large numbers of Britons feel good -- in economic terms, experience positive utility -- about their country's royalty.  (Large numbers of other Britons disagree with that first group of Britons, of course.)  And plenty of foreigners, especially gullible Americans, feed the U.K.'s economy by spending money seeing things like royal weddings.  This is good for Britain's export statistics and ultimately its GDP.

Note that these are two very different arguments.  The internal argument holds that if we feel good about having aristocrats, then that is all that matters.  If there is no accounting for taste, then one could have a society in which people feel plenty rich simply by living in a society that allows them to enjoy things that they like.  I prefer Bergman movies, you prefer collectors' plates of Prince Harry.  If our economies provide what we value, then that is all that matters.

By contrast, the external argument is merely a matter of getting outsiders to give you money for something that you can easily produce.  And Britain can definitely produce a lot of pomp.

As an aside, a late-season subplot allows the Earl's mother -- a true believer in her rightful place as an aristocrat -- to make a purely political point, which is that the aristocracy exists to be a political counterweight to the king.  She invokes Runnymede and the whole nine yards, arguing in essence that part of the system of checks and balances requires having an aristocracy.  That is not a crazy point, and at least it does not collapse on itself.

That is, no matter what one thinks about who is blessed with the entitlements of the aristocracy, it is possible for a political system to benefit from the existence of an independent source of power.  I wrote at the top of this column that I did not want to write about impeachment, but here we are.  Absolute executive power and the rule of law are incompatible, and if aristocrats were to be a bulwark against tyranny, then that is an independent argument in the aristocracy's favor.  Perhaps not an argument that defeats all others, but it is an argument.

The economic argument for something like the world of Downton Abbey, however, boils down to make-work jobs and featherbedding.  Perhaps the current royal family can justify itself financially, but the old aristocratic system could not.  Thus it died.  What does one call a system in which people with nothing but a power-based argument to hold onto their power can determine what the economy produces, no matter what the people might want?

Would Matthew's butler have felt quite so bad about losing his dignity if he knew that there was a job for him that actually produced something of value and paid him accordingly?  And, of no small moment, that gave him the freedom to decide when and whether to do something else with his time?

Take away the elegant gowns and the high-class accents, and the economic argument in "Downton Abbey" sounds like the right-wing parody of the New Deal and actually is the reality of a command economy.  That the "right people" (upper-crusty English types, not fat Soviet apparatchiks) get to have the power in "Downton Abbey" does not make it any less economically nonsensical.

End note: I am writing this column in Cambridge, England, where the modern British economy is under attack from a very different kind of economic illiteracy backed by racism, in the form of Brexit.  What the Earl of Grantham and Boris Johnson have in common is a firm belief that other people should be poorer so that they -- Grantham and Johnson -- can entrench their power.  One of those theories was rejected by history.  One hopes that the other will die a much quicker death.