Political Science

Even Game of Thrones Shows Rule of Law, Not Just Power, Important in Politics

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democracy in westeros
HBO

The magazine Foreign Affairs takes a look at the political lessons in the HBO series Game of Thrones, whose fourth season premiered last night. The magazine notes that while the series, and the books it was based on, may be interpreted as a story of how "might makes right," a closer look reveals the limitations of realpolitik (the idea that politics is, and should be, power) and the benefits from following some rule of law even in a society as nasty and brutish as that in Game of Thrones. Foreign Affairs explains:

Social relations in Westeros are sustained as much through bread-breaking rituals, arranged marriages, and promise-keeping as through backstabbing and treachery, and the power of such rules is only highlighted by their occasional breach. Lords and kings no less than oath-breakers are punished for violating custom and agreement—either explicitly or through the inability to convert their hard power into material successes. Contrary to Cersei's assertion, kings cannot always "do as they like": Ned and the chivalry he represented may appear to have been the loser at the end of book and season one, but Joffrey's disregard for basic standards of justice will return to haunt him as it did his predecessors. The true moral of the story is that when good rules are disregarded, disorder and ruin follow…

Read the whole thing here, and check out Reason TV's interview with Auburn University's Matthew McCaffrey, who explains the economic lessons to be drawn from Game of Thrones, below:

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133 responses to “Even Game of Thrones Shows Rule of Law, Not Just Power, Important in Politics

  1. The “Free Cities” are the ones that do not allow slavery. Some were founded by escaped slaves. In the books, there is certainly a libertarian feel to them and they seem to have less poverty and oppression.

    1. Westeros also does not allow slavery.

      1. No, but the “Small Folk” seem pretty close to feudal peasants and do not enjoy equal protection under the law.

        1. I think I misread your initial comment as saying that it was why they were great compared to Westores. I think you actually meant that the term Free Cities just applies to the ones which don’t allow slavery, in response to the video when he says that some do. While the cities in Slaver’s Bay aren’t part of the Free Cities, some of the Free Cities do allow slavery (e.g. Lys or Volantis).

          1. I had to look it up – you are correct. I had assumed none of them allowed slaves, not just Braavos.

            http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Free_Cities

            1. The “Free” seems to mean “mean from Valyrian/foreign rule” not “Free from slavery”.

              1. Yea – And I never read close enough to know exactly which cities were included.

      2. They allow slavery, they just don’t allow calling it slavery.

  2. “The true moral of the story is that when good rules are disregarded, disorder and ruin follow?”

    The moral of the story is that romantic notions and good intentions are not enough, if not backed by strength. Which is why the Stark’s failed thus far. When good rules are openly disregarded, your strength dissaptes, which is why the Targaryen dynasty fell, and why Joffrey position has been precarious.

    “Power is where men belive it resides.”, to quote the spymaster Varys.

    1. Joffreys position is stable.

      1. For the moment, but it has not been for most of his reign (the majority of the Seven Kingdoms have been in rebellion or sitting the civil wars out) and currently is highly dependent on the self-interest of the Tyrells.

        1. Ive read the books. By the end of book 3, and by I presume epusode 2 or 3 of season 4, his position is stable.

          1. If you are making the joke I think you’re making, he hasn’t gotten to that point yet (though it looks like that may be next week).

            1. Its not a joke. Its possibly a spoiler for those who havent read a book published 14 years ago.

              1. Episode Four, judging by the title of Episode Five.

              2. So then you clearly are making a joke about a “stable” position.

                1. Its not a joke, it is a very stable position.

                  1. oh let me guess he dies.

                    there’s a shocker – someone died in Game of Thrones.

                    guys seriously that show is booooring.

          2. As Ser Jaime said last night “the war is not over”.

          3. Well then, as stable as King Robert’s.

    2. The moral of the story is… There is no moral. It’s just a good story.

    3. People will die.

      1. Should be a reply to no spoilers…

  3. Social relations in Westeros are sustained as much through bread-breaking rituals, arranged marriages, and promise-keeping as through backstabbing and treachery, and the power of such rules is only highlighted by their occasional breach. Lords and kings no less than oath-breakers are punished for violating custom and agreement — either explicitly or through the inability to convert their hard power into material successes.

    Leaving potential jokes aside and the customary comparison made by the usual cadre of statist proggies between Westeros and the libertarian paradise-straw man they made up in their minds, one can seriously accept an inescapable reality and that is that even the writers of the show, probably most of them pro-state zealots, cannot create a world of utter and total chaos (presumably devoid of the imposing presence of a state) without falling into ridiculousness. risking incredulity among the fans.

    Even among these true-believers of positivist state action, the existence of a society completely bereft of rules of civility does not look right. Even they have to concede that spontaneous order exists and that there are things so rational and self-evident as agreements, contracts and one’s word (reputation) that makes things work without some sort of inspired intervention by wise overlords.

    1. Even they have to concede that spontaneous order exists and that there are things so rational and self-evident as agreements, contracts and one’s word (reputation) that makes things work without some sort of inspired intervention by wise overlords.

      +10000000

  4. In the AM Links Damned Fool pointed out that last night’s encounter with the Mountain’s men was a pretty apt portrayal of a lot of cops.

  5. NO SPOILERS!!!

    1. Luke and Leia are twin children of Darth Vafer.

      1. Tony Stark is Iron Man.

        1. Bruce Willis’ character is dead.

      2. Tony is Weigel!

        1. I thought Shreek was Weigel?

          1. I thought Tony was Gillespie.

    2. Its a frickin sled.

      1. It was Barzini all along.

    3. That chick in the Crying Game was really a man.

    4. Walter White dies.

      1. And Caesar.

    5. The ship sinks.

    6. It was all a dream in little Tommy Westphall’s head.

    7. It was Earth all along.

    8. It was all a dream in Bob Newhart’s head.

    9. JJ Abrams can ruin anything.

    10. His real name is Dick Whitman.

    11. Planet of the Apes is just Earth in the future. And the Statue of Liberty got PWND.

    12. Sean Bean’s character dies.

        1. All of them.

          1. He doesn’t die in Ronin.

    13. Winter is coming (maybe).

    14. Jesus comes back to life three days later.

    15. Zalalwe is really Elethiomel.

      and he used his sister’s bones to make the chair.

  6. Contrary to Cersei’s assertion, kings cannot always “do as they like”:

    Am I the only person who finds it a bit sad that this guy had to watch Game of Thrones to figure that fact out rather than just knowing something about history? Game of Thrones is just a less deep Lord of the Rings with actual medieval politics and skullduggery thrown in. Read Sharon Pennman’s historical fiction about the Angevin Kings of England and you learn the same lessons about power and politics as you do reading GOT. Read the real history of Byzantium or Medieval Italy.

    Henry II was the greatest medieval King of England and really the last absolute monarch in the mold of William and Henry I. Yet, even Henry as great as he was, couldn’t just encourage his knights to go and murder Thomas Becket without paying one hell of a price.

    1. Pennman’s novels are truly excellent and pretty damn accurate. Her appendixes usually describe the smallest deviations from historical facts.

      1. They really are. Rarely do I read an author and go “damn I wish I had written that”. I do that with Penman every time. I love her writing but am horribly envious that she is the writer I would like to be but never will be.

        1. Yep – she’s also the Historian I’ll never be.

    2. Well, GOT is a heavily fictionalized take on Medieval/early Renaissance English politics, so yeah, you cold go to the source material if you’d like.

    3. He could be a Medieval history scholar and Reason would still want him to tie the issue with GOT. In the game of SEO, you rank or you die.

    4. Eh, there’s a continuum of historical fiction. GOT definitely has some English and Scottish history (War of the Roses, Scottish Clan Douglas Black Dinner for Red Wedding) mixed in.

      Guy Gabriel Kay’s stuff is closer to historical accuracy than GoT, but still not in the category of “history as it might have happened.” There’s an entire genre of “historical fantasy” that people use for that sort of thing.

      1. I have never read the alternative history stuff. I always figured the truth is always more entertaining than any fiction. At some point I need to give them a try. I just worry I am too much into the actual history to let myself enjoy it and get over being bugged by it not being what happened. My loss I know.

        1. Try “The Guns of the South”. The premise is so goofy that the historical inaccuracies dont get in the way.

          Basic idea: South African Apartheidists upset over losing control steal a time machine and use it to ship modern military firearms to General Lee.

          1. There’s also stuff like the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik– Napoleonic War fiction that is alternative fictions and fantasy.

            There’s a huge spectrum of books from historical novels like Penman’s to far out “what if” alternative history like “The Guns of the South.”

    5. Game of Thrones is just a less deep Lord of the Rings with actual medieval politics and skullduggery thrown in.

      Martin borrows heavily from the Conan Hyborian age stories, Marco Polo, Huck Finn and Xenophon’s 10,000.

      Not just from medieval Europe and the war of the roses.

  7. I’d much rather live amongst the Free People of the north, even if it means living in perpetual snow and ice…

    Oh, wait…

    1. You’d one of the Cave People, I suppose.

    2. Do you mean the Free Folk?

      1. Oh, fuck off, you know what I meant.

        1. No, I really don’t. I’m not sure if you mean the Kingdom of the North or North of the Wall.

          1. Are those of the Kingdom of the North free? Or are they ruled by feudal monarchy in which the common man gets no say? Is the Kingdom of the North locked in perpetual snow and ice? I think not.

            Damnable pedant!

            1. In practice most people in the North are pretty much free. It’s too rural for a king hundreds of miles away to matter.

              And it still snows in the summer in the North.

              1. 😉

                When I was typing the original post I waffled between “people” and “folk”. I thought back to last night’s episode and could have sworn they called them free people at Jon Snow’s trial. After you called me out, I went back and rewatched it…

                You are clearly in the right.

                (But you’re still a dick)

  8. romantic notions and good intentions are not enough, if not backed by strength.

    If only we had the RIGHT iron-fisted dictator, everything would be fine.

    1. Not where I was going at all, but even the best intended leader needs strength to enforce his intentions, and that means getting the assistance of people who don’t necessarily agree with all of your notions of justice (See Robb’s interactions with Lord Karstark).

      There are a lot of examples in the story of characters making decisions with terrible consequences that made perfect sense to them in the moment they made them.

    2. That’s the direction they seen to be going with Danerys. It’s also why she’s becoming insufferably self-righteous with the “I am JESUS!!!” thing the show is pounding over our heads.

      1. It may seem that way now.

  9. “Is there any gold hidden in the village? Silver? Gems? Where is Lord Beric?”

  10. From the linked Foreign Affairs article:

    Far from being an allegory for immigration reform, the story of the Northern Wall and the forces it holds at bay is about the mistaken belief that industrial civilization can stand against the changing forces of nature.

    Ah yes, “it’s not your allegory, it’s my allegory.” I think it’s just as strained to claim that the Wall and the Others are obviously a story of environmentalism. Sure, it’s a collective action problem, as the next part makes clear, but there are a host of collective action problems, and a invading force and defense is one of them.

    1. What’s brewing north of the Wall is an existential threat that renders all the politics south of it trivial. I’m not sure Martin means it to be an allegory for anything specifically.

  11. Sometimes I wonder if cultural critics are reading more into this series than Martin ever intended (witness the limpout Slate article that was linked here yesterday). Other than the subversive aspect of killing off and neutering the “hero family”s influence in Westeros, Martin’s work is really nothing more than a modified narrative of medieval Europe with a bit of magic thrown in to spice things up.

    And really, it’s those medieval conventions that may allow Martin to cleave to a few of the traditional fantasy novel tropes. The Freys, for instance, have a completely toxic reputation amongst the other Westerosi nations now for the Red Wedding, so we’ll probably see members of that family get picked off one by one for violating those accepted norms in the most brutal way possible–something of an unspoken understanding that the Freys are fair game now and no one will say or do anything if “accidents” happen to befall members of that house.

    1. Deconstructionist tendencies abound.

      I, for example, think it’s all about boobs and their power over men.

    2. Mmmm, pie.

      1. Oh, I’m sure Freys will get off scott free, as long as they send someone to negotiate an appropriate ransom.

    3. Martin’s work is really nothing more than a modified narrative of medieval Europe with a bit of magic thrown in to spice things up.

      THANK YOU

    4. I’m a “death of the author” kind of guy. What Martin intended has nothing to do with what the book means to a particular reader. The ability of a narrative to support multiple valid meanings to multiple readers is part of what distinguishes great literature.

  12. Can anyone tell me why osha and rickon were in season 3 instead os splitting up at end of 2. And on a related note, adding the reeds in to season 2.

    1. Because the writers love to make inexplicable deviations from the books for no reason. E.g., leaving out Strong Belwas. Inexcusable.

      1. Its why season 1 worked so well. Very few deviations and those were minor.

        With one exception, every deviation has sucked. Tywin and Arya in season 2 is that exception.

        1. Having Arya kill Polliver instead of The Tickler last night made no sense. None. None whatsoever.

          1. Didnt she kill the Tickler in Season 2 with the first of her death wishes?

            1. I think you’re right. Which means they planned out there stupidity well in advance.

              1. Their. Fuck.

              2. I dont think they planned it out. I swear they made the decisions on what to change in season 2 without reading book 3.

                Season 3 was all about backtracking to make things make sense again.

                1. “Hey! Let’s murder all of Dany’s household!”

                  “Good idea!”

                  It’s amazing how the show has managed to mostly overcome its writers.

                  1. The source material is solid.

                    It would take Paul Verhoeven to screw this up.

                  2. There was them having Dany’s white horse die crossing the Red Waste, and then have her inexplicitly riding some other fine white horse when taking possession of the Unsullied.

                    1. “inexplicably”

                    2. White horses are so very very rare….

                      Someone who likes white horses getting a new white horse when one dies is also an impossibility.

              3. they planned out there stupidity well in advance.

                I understand that if any more words come pouring out your cunt mouth I’m going to have to eat every fucking chicken in this room.

        2. Tywin and Arya in season 2 is that exception.

          Agreed.

        3. Prepare for more suckage. Apparently they’re changing things up more than ever before this season.

          I haven’t minded the changes for the most part, but I hope they don’t start down the path of changing for the sake of changing, i.e., to give book readers a chance to be surprised every now and then. That would suck.

          I would say that I also don’t trust teevee people to stick to the random brutality over narrative satisfaction that characterizes the books, but they did make the RW even worse than it was, so perhaps they have the memo.

      2. Strong Bilwas is Tom Bombadil.

    2. They probably did not want to hire actors to play the Reeds in S2, and they could not get Osha out of the story until they established the Reeds as characters. It was clunky and made more sense in the book, but it was a TV forced decision.

      1. But the money to pay the Reeds is offset by not paying Osha and Rickon is season 3.

        1. I’m think they kicked the time and expense of casting the Reed’s into the season 3 budget rather then season 2, while there was no additional expense beside salary to keep Osha and rickon on.

  13. You GoT people finally get a thread of your very own and can’t even muster up 100 comments. I’ve seen more GoT action on PM Links.

    /disappointed.

    1. We have to tip-toe around people who haven’t read the books, want to but haven’t watched the show yet and people who aren’t caught up with the show.

      An current-to-all-books thread would explode. If nothing else for the cathartic bitching we could engage in about people who only watch the show speculating incessantly about what is going to happen.

      1. I will tiptoe around recent books, but book 3 is fair game.

        1. la belle rob sans merci

          1. 14 years. If you havent read it in that time, you cant complain.

      2. R+L=J

        Discuss.

        1. Yes. Its the only thing that makes sense.

          1. The fire and the ice. Perhaps the hero and incestual king to rule alongside you know who when its all said anf done.

            1. The dragon has three heads. We have accounted for two, who would be the third?

              1. Oh wait, you covered all 3.

                That is possible. Or the Queen who has the Dornish law on her side as the third.

                1. The fire, the ice, and perhaps the free folk?

                  1. Like Spinal Tap … the third is lukewarm water?

                    Someone from the Iron Islands? The sister?

                    1. Bran

                      3 eyed crow said as much.

              2. Some obvious choices in book 5…

  14. So, this “Game of Thrones” – is it on TEEVEE or something? And it’s – what – gladiator movies for the rest of us?

    Sounds intriguing….

    /never seen it

    1. You ever seen a grown man naked? Do you…like movies about gladiators?

      Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish Prison?

  15. I’m thinking the ultimate end of the series is that the various factions in Westeros will accomplish nothing but weakening the whole kingdom to the point that the last man standing becomes easily conquerable by the actual threat of the Others, only to be saved in the last minute by Danerys showing with her army (can it still be a Dues ex Machina when the author has been telegraphing it for five thousand pages?)

    1. The ending has already been told.

      “All Men must die.”

      Everyone dies.

      Also I don’t think Dany is going to keep her dragons let alone live to make it to the end.

      Her son might.

      1. There is the theory that John Snow is actually a secret heir to the Targaryen line.

        1. I think so too. (BTW – This isn’t a spoiler because it hasn’t yet come up in the book)

          It makes no sense for Ned to be such a honorable man and then fuck up so badly by fathering a bastard son just after getting married. He is the epitome of righteousness and that doesn’t fit.

          The only reason that makes sense is if it was his sister’s (Lyanna’s)kid and she wasn’t raped but was in love and got knocked up by Rheagar and birthed Jon before dying. A righteous man like Edard would endure the shame and humiliation of being thought an adulterer if it was to protect Jon and his sister’s honor.

          This also gives you three dragon riders of Targaryeon blood to go along with three dragons.

          1. Would Ned lie to his wife even when he sees her take out her jealousy on his sister’s son?

  16. BTW, am I the only who found Daario Sargent rather disappointing compared to Daario York?

    1. I like the new one more.

      Neither look or act like the Daario in the books.

      1. Agreed, but I thought the first was closer in that he was at least mildly flamboyant. Daario Sargent seems extremely boring to me.

        1. Flowers and gambling?

          I think the character is written as flamboyant…the actor now that plays him not so much. We will see i guess.

          Also what the hell was that discussion between Worm and Daario where Daario makes fun of Worm?

          Probably and hopefully just exposition to explain the unsullied’s eunuch status. I don’t recall them not getting along in the books.

  17. I understand that if any more words come pouring out your cunt mouth I’m going to have to eat every fucking chicken in this room.

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