What will it take to "break the wheel" of Westeros? How "Game of Thrones" highlights the importance of institutions

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Daenerys Targaryen, played by actress Emilia Clarke. (Courtesy of HBO).

The Institute for Humane Studies Learn Liberty website has just published my new article "Breaking the Wheel of Westeros: Why Heroes aren't Enough." Here is an excerpt:

In a famous scene in Season 5 of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen compares the struggle for power in Westeros to a spinning wheel that elevates one great noble house and then another. She vows that she does not merely intend to turn the wheel in her own favor: "I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel."

In the world of the show, Daenerys's statement resonates because the rulers of Westeros have made a terrible mess of the continent. Even those who are not sadistic (like King Joffrey), or venal (like many of the leaders of the great houses) do little to benefit the common people, and often end up making their lot even worse than before….

Unlike most of the other rulers we see in the series, Daenerys has at least some genuine interest in improving the lot of ordinary people…

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Daenerys has any plan to prevent future oppression and injustice other than to replace the current set of evil rulers with a better one: herself. The idea of "breaking the wheel" implies systemic institutional reform, not just replacing the person who has the dubious honor of planting his or her rear end on the Iron Throne in King's Landing. If Daenerys has any such reforms in mind, it is hard to say what they are….

The characters in the books and the TV show are not the only ones who largely ignore the need for institutional change. We the fans are often guilty of the same sin. Few fans watch the show with an eye to institutional questions…

Most of us read fantasy literature and watch TV shows to be entertained, not to get a lesson in political theory….

However understandable, the pop culture fixation on heroic leaders rather than institutions reinforces a dangerous tendency of real-world politics. The benighted people of Westeros are not the only ones who hope that their problems might go away if only we concentrate vast power in the hands of the right ruler. The same pathology has been exploited by dictators throughout history, both left and right.

It is also evident, in less extreme form, in many democratic societies….

I previously wrote about the politics of Game of Thrones here, here, here, and here.

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