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Lessons from the Abbey

WASHINGTON — Many “Downton Abbey” watchers are nostalgia gluttons who grieved when Lord Grantham lost his fortune in Canadian railroad shares.

There are, however, a discerning few whose admirable American sensibilities caused them to rejoice about Grantham’s loss: “Now perhaps this amiable but dilettantish toff will get off his duff and get a job.”

This drama’s verisimilitude extends to emphasizing that his lordship had a fortune to squander only because he married an American heiress. By battening on what they disdained, this republic’s commercial culture, many British aristocrats could live beyond their inherited means — actual work being, of course, unthinkable.

The deserved decline of Downton’s finances demonstrates why estate taxes are unnecessary: Even when Balzac’s axiom is accurate (“At the bottom of every great fortune without apparent source, there’s always some crime”) and fortunes are ill-gotten, subsequent generations often soon fritter them away. Call this Darwinian redistribution.

Americans have an unslakable appetite for British artistic syrup. Charles Dickens, although a noble spirit and literary genius, could be so insufferably saccharine that his flinty Mr. Gradgrind in “Hard Times” (“The Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist”) seemed like a breath of fresh air. In 1841, when Dickens was serializing “The Old Curiosity Shop,” the ship arriving in America carrying the latest installment reportedly was greeted by dockworkers shouting, “Is Nell still alive?”

But Oscar Wilde was right: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” And one must have a head of stone to enjoy the “Downton Abbey” scene when Matthew, a fragment of the upper crust whose war wound had left him in a wheelchair, sees that Lavinia, another chip off the old crust, is about to trip while carrying a heavy tray. Gallantry propels Matthew up from his chair and he is ambulatory once again and ever more.

It is fitting that PBS offers “Downton Abbey” to its disproportionately progressive audience. This series is a languid appreciation of a class structure supposedly tempered by the paternalism of the privileged.

And if progressivism prevails, America will be Downton Abbey: Upstairs, the administrators of the regulatory state will, with a feudal sense of noblesse oblige, assume responsibility for the lower orders downstairs, gently protecting them from “substandard” health insurance policies, school choice, gun ownership, large sodas and other decisions that experts consider naughty or calamitous.

Why, however, does a normally wise and lucid conservative such as Peter Augustine Lawler, professor of government at Berry College, celebrate the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey”? Writing in Intercollegiate Review, he interprets the Abbey as a welfare state conservatives can revere:

“Everyone — aristocrat or servant — knows his place, his relational responsibilities. … The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. … Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. … The nobility of living in service to a lord. … What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

Good grief. Americans do not call the freedom to figure out one’s place in the world a burden; they call it the pursuit of happiness. And to be “given” a “secure” place amid “unchangeable” relationships is not dignified, it is servitude.

One reason Thomas Jefferson, a child of Virginia’s gentry, preferred an agricultural society to one in which people are “piled upon one another in large cities” (“let our workshops remain in Europe”) is that he valued social stasis, as the privileged are wont to do. One reason his rival Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant striver thriving in Manhattan, wanted a restless market society of ample and volatile capital was as a solvent of the entrenched hierarchies that impede upward mobility. “Downton Abbey” viewers should remember the following rhapsodic hymn to capitalism’s unceasing social churning:

“Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions. … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.”

This (from “The Communist Manifesto”) explains why capitalism liberates. And why American conservatives should understand that some people smitten by “Downton Abbey” hope to live upstairs during a future reign of gentry progressivism.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com. (c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group