Bohanon: Downton Abbey and Political Labels

March 31, 2014

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

I persistently characterize my political philosophy as that of a classical liberal. This sows some confusion. Those who share my deep skepticism about the redistributionist tendency of a modern welfare state are usually characterized as conservatives. So why muddy the water? A short political history is in order.

For those who follow the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” one cannot help but note that the Crowley family’s wealth flows from their ownership of land. The British landed gentry lived off agricultural rents. They were the bastions of the established order of King and Country, Blood and Soil, Church and State, and were conservatives because they desired to maintain the existing social order.

The Industrial Revolution raised the status and wealth of the mercantile and new manufacturing class. This class was not attached to the rigid structures of the British aristocracy. They were both the byproduct and cause of a changing social order: They were political liberals.

A persistent debate of early 19th-century Britain was over tariffs on grain. The conservatives favored high tariffs, while the liberals opposed high tariffs. Tariffs on imported foodstuffs kept domestic food prices high and supported the rental incomes of British landlords. The British mercantile and industrial class, however, found their wealth augmented by a regime of free trade.

One can examine this political history exclusively through a narrow economic lens, but economic interests have a way of morphing into sincere political philosophies. To the British land-owning conservatives, protective agricultural tariffs were part of a larger philosophy of government. In their view, part of the function of the state was to protect the wealth arrangements of the existing order. On the other hand, the liberals developed a philosophy that argued the state had no legitimate business in redistributing wealth to any favored class.

However, economic interests in the United States were quite different — the philosophy of free trade was long associated with a liberal position. But starting around 1880, liberals began to split into two philosophical camps. One group maintained the classical “hands-off” position on state-directed income redistribution. The second group — the progressives — embraced an active role for government-directed income redistribution — but putatively for the interests of the lower-income classes.

David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), one-time Indiana University president and the founding president of Stanford University, argued the classical position as late as 1908. On a protective tariff justified on the grounds that certain interests deserved “a reasonable profit,” Jordan stated, “. . . in the theory of our republic, it is no part of the state to guarantee to anyone ‘a reasonable profit’ nor to protect anyone from a reasonable loss. Its function is to see fair play and freedom of operation. It is a breach of the principle of equality before the law that the state should do anything more.”

He also said that the greatest harm of a protective tariff was “moral, not economic. It lies in the perversion of our theories of government, the introduction of the idea of class enrichment through legislation.”

Despite rumors to the contrary, the classical liberal position did not die out with Jordan’s generation. Although contemporary conservatives more-or-less embrace the free market principles of classical liberals, conservatives and classical liberals are not always or even usually in sync on issues of immigration, national defense, drug decriminalization or the hot-button social issues of abortion and gay rights. Fighting among the Republicans quite often is a conflict between classical liberals (Paul, Rubio) and conservatives (Santorum, Huckabee).

On the other hand, that second strain of 19th-century liberals have increasingly preferred to self-identify as progressives. So I say hooray. Let us recognize now that there are three major strains of American political-economic philosophy: conservatism, classical liberalism and progressivism.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.



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