Politics and Liberty in Game of Thrones

I watch the Game of Thrones for the politics, and there is a lot of political insight to admire. In anticipation of the next season that begins this Sunday, I thought I would comment on some of it.

An overarching theme is the nature of power—what is it and where does it lie. The two Kings on the Iron Throne portrayed so far—Robert Baratheon and his successor Joffrey– are not the real powers within their own kingdom. They are either insufficiently vigilant or insufficiently self-possessed to enjoy enduring authority. Even kings must exercise power through agents. Game of Thrones in large part reflects this principal-agent game and these two principals lack the self-agency to control their external agents. As Machiavelli recognized, only people of a certain character can wield power over the long term.

Mancur Olson (and Thomas Hobbes before him) understood that a stable monarchy was a great advance for liberty over warring barons, because the king has incentives to invest in the prosperity of his people so as to gain more taxes and more power rather than simply to seize the assets of his subjects. Game of Thrones vividly illustrates this truth. Once there is no agreement among the leading houses on the successor to Robert Baratheon , death and destruction reign instead. And Robert’s own displacement of his lawful predecessor, Aerys II of the House of Targaryen, weakened the royal legitimacy that his death then undoes.

The most powerful noble House in the series—the Lannisters— boasts the motto: “We always pay our debts.” Putting this claim at the foundation of their House helps the Lannisters concentrate power at any point in time because others will lend them resources with greater confidence of being repaid in full. Great Britain’s success against France was due to a similar pre-commitment, made even more credible by the decision to locate revenue responsibilities in Parliament, whose members included many bond holders.

A perennial problem of monarchy or ruling nobility is that it mixes state and personal considerations. The failure to keep personal considerations in check is again and again the downfall of the House Stark. For instance, Robert Stark takes a wife for love, going back on his word to make dynastic marriage with the daughter of one of his key supporting lords. The results are disastrous, possibly ending the House itself. Being a sucessful king or leading noble means subordinating one’s personal desires to political imperatives. The great example in literature is that of Aeneas who sacrifices his love for Dido and indeed Dido herself in the interests of his people.

Daenerys of the displaced House of Targaryen, out of power and far away from the family seat in distant lands, appears at least so far to be the most liberty loving. She gathers forces by declaring her interest in freeing slaves and leading them as free men. It is not a surprise that her relative liberality is born from the need to recruit and inspire soldiers because Daenerys cannot rely, as other Houses can, on her vassals to provide troops. While Game of Thrones is generally brutally realistic about the exercise of power, this storyline demonstrates that “soft power”—disseminating attractive ideas—is nevertheless real.

Perhaps the most important  political aspect of Game of Thrones is an implicit attack on a certain kind of conservative reverence for the past. Here the contrast is with Tolkein’s great fantasy The Lord of The Rings. In Tolkein an essentially medieval past is endowed with a nobility that the present does not possess. Indeed Tolkein’s trilogy ends with the passing of a great age, as the ring bearers depart Middle Earth. It encapsulates a lament not unlike that for the Age of Chivalry in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. For all its magic, Game of Thrones represents the medieval past more realistically—as a time of arbitrary power, entrenched injustice, and a squalor that is moral as well as physical. George Martin—the author of Game of Thrones– is clearly a liberal not a conservative, although his obvious fondness  for Daenerys suggests that he may be a liberal of the classical kind.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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