Game of Thrones Shows the Problems of Centralized Power

The show acts almost as a thought experiment for what happens when imperfect human beings vie for control in a power vacuum and subsequently attain their goal.

Recently, Barry Brownstein wrote a piece on how Game of Thrones acts as an advertisement for capitalism. He proposed that the show is representative of a feudalistic Europe: poor and economically stagnant. Were it not for the Enlightenment and the birth of free enterprise, the Western world would have remained as such. Continuing on that theme, there is another defense for capitalism within the show that directly addresses the rise in popularity of centralized theories of government in the West.

The show acts almost as a thought experiment for what happens when imperfect human beings vie for control in a power vacuum and subsequently attain their goal. In Game of Thrones, we see that no single individual is fit for the Iron Throne, the seat of absolute power, just as no individual or committee is fit to rule a centralized government in the real world. Each character’s assumption of the throne exposes a unique political problem for centralized power, one that both populism and socialism fail to address.

The Problem of Evil

Pick almost any character in the show, and the problem of their rule is apparent. Let's start with the obvious examples.

The adolescent Joffrey Baratheon, who for a time sat on the throne, was a sadist; he demanded his guard cut out a man’s tongue for singing a humorous song about the royal family. His mother, Cersei Lannister, who takes the throne after the demise of her children, is no better, setting off explosives to kill her rivals, along with hundreds of others. When placed in a position of authority, any man or woman is subject to the same selfish inclinations that direct us all.She urges her brother, with whom she has an incestuous relationship, to push a young boy out of a window to his near-death. Prince Viserys, whose father’s death by regicide left the power vacuum, draws arrogance from his claim to the throne and tells his sister he would allow an entire army to abuse her if it meant he could assume his rightful inheritance.

These are three of the cruelest and most wicked characters in the show, but they are not hyperbolic characterizations of tyrants. Throughout history, when individuals have assumed a position with consolidated power, they have carried out genocides, assassinated rivals, tortured dissidents, devised famines, and censored media.

The theories for the corrupting nature of power are countless, but central to each is that humans are imperfect. When placed in a position of authority, any man or woman is subject to the same selfish inclinations and fear of lost privileges that direct us all. These flaws lead the average person to take dubious actions in their careers, but when power is centralized, a tyrant’s ability to injure others is multiplied. In short, humans are imperfect and, as further examples will show, even the most virtuous will succumb their nature.

Jon Snow and the Problem of Representation

The King in the North is the show’s central protagonist and best candidate for rule. Unbeknownst to him, Jon Snow has the rightful claim to the throne, and he acts as the prototypical fantasy hero—noble, a skilled fighter, and a natural leader. For our analogy, he resembles an ideal politician. He fights for the needs of his people and, if we trust his words, shuns the prospects of his rule, only doing so out of necessity.

In his province, he is a good lord, able to meet most demands. The castle is small, his people are dispersed, and an imminent threat to his territory makes his focus an obvious one. However, if he ruled from the Iron Throne, conflicting interests would arise and, despite his honor, Jon would be unable to fulfill them all.

Even as a lord, his personal interests conflict. During a battle to maintain stolen lands, his opponent Ramsey Bolton creates a scenario to place Jon’s allegiances to his family and his country in opposition. Jon must choose between his brother’s death or a well-strategized battle.Thus, as Jon chose his family over his people, politicians in a centralized system must privilege one group or need over another. Coaxed into a rash decision, he charges and, were it not for a deus ex machina in the form of unexpected calvary, he would have lost the battle.

Returning to the real world, in The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek writes that in any centralized system, “somebody’s views will have to decide whose interests are more important.” In any small state where culture and opinions are consistent across the land, like Jon’s territory, conflicting interests are few.

At the top of a federal government, however, it is impossible to satisfy one demand without trampling upon another: the needs of businesses versus environmental concerns, the balance between the educational preferences of one cultural group against another, the allocation of funds to pre-existing conditions or traumatic experiences. All are oppositions that no single government could manage. Thus, as Jon chose his family over his people, politicians in a centralized system must privilege one group or need over another.

Daenerys and the Problem of Authority

If Jon is an ideal politician, Daenerys Targaryen is a freedom fighter. Her goals are noble, seeking to rid the land of slavery. Unlike Jon Snow, she shuns rash decisions, rarely if ever acting without first consulting her advisors. Yet, no matter how noble her use of force in the destruction of slavery, her authoritarian bent is clear.

Several times throughout the series, she relies on her small brood of dragons and growing army to kill powerful slavers or those who refuse to bend the knee. 

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, while deliberating his decision to murder his ruler, Brutus ponders if “[Caesar] would be crowned / how that might change his nature.” Brutus worries about Caesar’s actions once given power: the contempt he might develop for the common people, the risk of war with his people used as replaceable chattel, or the taxes he could levy to further increase his power.

For Dany, the question is what happens when slavery is abolished and she, like Jon Snow, is faced with ethically ambiguous challenges.

For Dany, the question is what happens when slavery is abolished and she, like Jon Snow, is faced with ethically ambiguous challenges. Time after time, in the name of freedom, she has burned individuals alive, commanded her army to slaughter, and conquered lands. When faced with the comparatively inconsequential matter of Jon Snow’s kneeling before a throne, though, she reminds him of the dragons outside. Once she fought for individual rights; in the throne room, faced with more complex challenges, she fights to maintain her own power.

The question for the real world is what happens when centralized power faces smaller matters of state: matters of insurance, education, or even for whom to bake a cake. Thus, moving from a problem of representation to one of force, once a decision is made regarding whose interests are more important, the final recourse for authority is force.

Eddard Stark

Even Ned Stark, whose only apparent flaw is his commitment to honor, would be incapable of ruling. Perhaps he would succeed in a small state as a symbolic king resigned to the arbitration of justice and war; however, if Stark had attempted to manage the economy of the Seven Kingdoms, he would have found himself out of his depth.

Friedrich Hayek addressed the problem posed by complexity throughout his body of work. In his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” he writes:

It is because every individual knows little and, in particular, because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

Any one individual or even one governing body is incapable of possessing the knowledge required to run a whole civilization. There is no one system of insurance that could meet the veritable medical needs of a populace. There is not one high school curriculum that will inspire and adequately instruct every student in a diverse nation. There are no systems of regulations that, applied across a country, would most efficiently protect the consumer while maintaining the freedom of industry to innovate and produce.

The Solution

There are three problems, then. In the face of conflicting interests, a centralized government must favor one over another. Once the decision is made, force becomes the tool to accomplish the goal. Even in this unideal scenario, any centralized government would be incapable of perfectly making every decision and acting upon every need set before it. To these three problems, a capitalist system provides answers.

In response to this knowledge problem, Hayek gives the answer in The Road to Serfdom, writing that “the spontaneous and uncontrolled efforts of individuals [are] capable of producing a complex order of economic activities.” With decision-making spread out to every individual buyer and seller, the populace can collectively make every necessary decision to bring about the ideal ends.

For Dany, the question is what happens when slavery is abolished and she, like Jon Snow, is faced with ethically ambiguous challenges.

Regarding the use of force, unlike Daenerys, when power is spread out to innumerable producers and buyers, society begins to direct its own goals; individuals can vote with their dollars to uphold an industry or shut it down, leaving industries responsive to consumers.

Jon Snow’s conflicting desires can never be met by a centralized state. However, where small governing bodies maintain power, a federalist system can meet local, culturally-consistent demands with fidelity.

Finally, capitalism does not negate the problem of evil, but in spreading out authority and power, it offers sufficient checks against it. 

There are four problems that each of these characters poses: the problem of evil, a problem of conflicting interests, a problem of force, and a problem of knowledge. Populism and socialism are unfit to meet all four. A small-government capitalist system can.

Further Reading

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