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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Right Conquers Might

A song of state and society

The success of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (and its HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones) has sparked new interest in the unvarnished workings of the State and of statecraft.

What it says about each will be familiar to most libertarians. Martin accomplishes something libertarians have struggled to do for a long time: Encourage readers to see beyond the façade of political parties, personalities, and other red herrings, and perceive clearly what the State does and is. Because the politics of the series are not easily linked to the ideology of left or right, but to government as such, A Song of Ice and Fire can peel away the trappings of political behavior to expose its essence: aggression.

I have argued elsewhere that Martin’s epic brilliantly captures the essence of public administration and finance. It also contains larger themes, especially when the series is surveyed through the eyes of the most important families of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

The story revolves around these great houses, each of which has its own “words”—“family mottoes, touchstones, [and] prayers of sorts.” Although unique to certain families, each set of words reveals something timeless and universal about human societies at their best and worst. Specifically, they highlight what is essential about the State and provide an opportunity to reflect on the beauty of peaceful social order, if only by way of contrast.

The purpose of the “game of thrones” is to control the State. Government’s élan vital is captured perfectly in the words of House Greyjoy: “We Do Not Sow.” The Greyjoys rule over the Ironmen, a Viking-like culture dependent on seafaring plunder for its survival. Hence, they do not sow, but only reap the fruits of what others have sown (Lord Greyjoy styles himself “Lord Reaper,” for example). It’s all about conflict and redistribution, not wealth creation. That’s beneath the Greyjoys. But is this not a simple statement of what Franz Oppenheimer called “the organization of the political means”? States are the great reapers of human society, thriving on the peaceful efforts of others. Those who use the “economic means” of social interaction are only a productive base to be exploited by a stronger ruling class. This lesson will not be lost on libertarians.

Not all the houses of Westeros see themselves as exploiters, however. Some are content simply to look down on their subjects, or the “small folk” as the nobles call them. House Mallister declares itself “Above the Rest,” and House Wode reflects the same disdain with the words “Touch Me Not.” Power, war, and conflict are a constant refrain in these mottoes, as indeed they are for states of all stripes. The Targaryens vow “Fire and Blood,” and the Baratheons boast “Ours is the Fury.” For the powerful of Westeros, as in our world, the “small folk” are merely pieces in the game, to be moved and discarded at whim.

A Song of Ice and Fire is not primarily about the benefits of a free and peaceful society, although it does point out its obvious superiority to the wars, social chaos, and economic turmoil of the game of thrones. But with a little interpretation, some hopeful ideas about the good society can be drawn from the words of other houses. Take the words of House Stark: “Winter is Coming.” It has become a pop culture catchphrase. It’s no surprise the Starks are looked down upon by the other noble families of the Seven Kingdoms: Although loyal to kings they deem legitimate, the Starks take little part in the political intrigues of Westeros. Their words too contrast sharply with those of other families, which tend to involve references to war and political power. Instead, “Winter is Coming” advises us to be patient, careful, and above all, prepared. The Stark words represent the worldview of the businessman more than the politician. Taking the long view requires deferring gratification so as to survive difficult times.

There also is an economic metaphor to be made regarding “winter” and economic hardship on the one hand, and economic “summer,” when all seems plentiful, on the other. The politician ignores economic winter, acting as if the world were in perpetual summer. The entrepreneur plans for and copes with scarcity. The Stark words are almost the only ones Martin mentions that recognize a power beyond the political. Literally that power is nature. But the words are also a statement about the inevitability of change and of hardship, and also about human ingenuity and the ability to overcome even the most difficult challenges.

Another of these houses, House Martell, puts this sentiment into practice. The Martells are patient and ever cautious, but plod relentlessly toward their goals. Their words, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” are a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit. Living and thriving as we do in an age of technological and entrepreneurial wonder, it’s easy to forget that the road to plenty is a never-ending struggle, and entrepreneurial failure is ensured along the way. But it is the uncompromising, creative spirit of entrepreneurs that prevents them from giving up. The Martell words reflect this: No matter what obstacles they face, they will triumph in the end. They are especially relevant in entrepreneurs’ conflict with governments and colluding crony hierarchies that would like nothing more than to smother the entrepreneurs’ efforts in the cradle.

The words convey a broader ideological meaning as well: In the long-term effort to promote peace and a free society, libertarians must never be bowed, bent, or broken by the force or largesse of governments or their allies. In the battle of ideas, we must take heart in the obscure and rarely discussed words of House Wydman, “Right Conquers Might.”

The author would like to thank Carmen Dorobat for help developing this essay.

  • Matthew McCaffrey is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester and editor of Libertarian Papers.