GAME OF THRONES SEAN Since I started this series, we've talked about the corrupting nature of power; the importance of due process and rule of law; the limits of central planning; the dangers of economic and social isolation; the value of free speech; the nature of authoritarian ideology... In short, we've already talked about everything anyone would ever need to know in order to understand the horrifyingly brutal world of Game of Thrones. That's probably good, because there's no limit to the sheer number of videos you can find on the internet right now that outline real world parallels for all the terrible things people do to each other on that show. And there's clearly no level of moral depravity beneath most of the people battling to acquire and retain political power in Westeros. So instead of rehashing all that stuff again, let's answer a different question: What ideas, institutions, and rules are necessary to escape the world of Game of Thrones? Stick around, hit that subscribe button, ring that notification bell, and welcome to Out of Frame. Before we really get started, a couple disclaimers. First, there will be some spoilers for seasons 1 through 7 of Game of Thrones, but nothing from the final season so don't worry about that. Second, I have not read the books, but there are more than enough examples of terrible governance just in the TV series, so... Don't @ me. With that out of the way, let's start by defining what a really good society looks like, because it's pretty much the polar opposite of what the average person in Westeros experiences. For me, and I hope most people, a healthy society is one where the vast majority of people have homes, clothes, and food to eat. It's one where most people don't have to worry about physical danger. One where thefts, assaults, rapes, murders, and war are rare. It's one where religious extremists don't have the power to imprison or punish people for violating their preferred doctrine, where people aren't conscripted into armies and forced to fight for rulers they've never met or for causes they don't care about; and where the stuff they create isn't stolen to pay for lavish castles and royal birthday parties. It's one where people are mostly free to think and say what they want, and to choose the kinds of lives they want to live without getting permission from anybody. The question is: How do we get there? Political philosophers have been debating this question for centuries. For example, the 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that... "During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man." Furthermore, Hobbes argued that... "Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues." Meaning, if there's no government to enforce standards of law, violence and theft would be everywhere. He went on to say that without the state there would be... "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." But having a "common power" can be pretty disastrous as well. Clearly if you've got someone like Cersei Lannister as your Queen, you're going to have a bad time. But would you have a better time under Robert Baratheon? Rhaegar Targaryen? Euron Greyjoy? Joffrey? Unlikely. And even as a lot of fans are rooting for characters like Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne, it's not clear that things would be a whole lot better for the average person if they did. As the 18th Century, French judge & political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat, also known as Montesquieu, wrote: "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty." It doesn't really matter who the person is. The bad incentives created by concentrated power don't just affect the worst, most ambitious people. They affect everybody. That's not to say Jon Snow and Daenerys aren't different in some important respects. Both characters at least seem to abhor slavery and care about the welfare of their people. That's good, but Daenerys is obviously not above using violence and fear to command obedience. She often seems to enjoy brutality in a way that is nothing short of Machiavellian. No, really. In his early 16th-century treatise, "The Prince", Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that "Men ought to be indulged or utterly destroyed", and that a new ruler "must determine all the injuries he will need to inflict," and "inflict them once and for all." This means crushing your enemies with overwhelming force, so that others will fear challenging you in the future. He also said that "whoever conquers a free town and does not demolish it commits a great error and may be expect to be ruined himself." That's all pretty much Dany's playbook. Meanwhile, Jon's best quality is that he doesn't actually seem to be that interested in ruling. But he's also driven by a code of honor nobody else in Westeros seems to share. Unfortunately, it's largely the same code of honor that got Ned Stark killed. Come to think of it, Machiavelli had something to say about that too: "The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous." That guy might have been on to something. But the question remains: How do we escape this cycle? Daenerys says she wants to break the crushing wheel of power grinding common people into miserable poverty, but in order to do that, you can't just take control of the wheel. You actually have to... you know... break it. In this case, that means ditching the idea that anyone should have the kind of power everyone in Game of Thrones is chasing to begin with. What the people of Westeros needs is not another ruler. What they need is a free society. Fortunately, thanks to the ideas of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment, we have a model for what that looks like. One good place to start is with John Locke, who in his Second Treatise of Government famously wrote: "...being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions." This is a powerfully simple concept. It means that we shouldn't rob, assault, enslave, or murder other people. The catch is that "we" also includes government. That's it. Now... I say that this is "powerfully simple" because these ideas seem super obvious to most people who live in parts of the world where they're already in place, but for the vast majority of human history and even to this day in a lot of countries, most people have never lived under conditions where any of these rules were the norm. At least not the average person. One of the first major legal advancements for individual rights in the Western world was the Magna Carta in 1215 AD. It enhanced the protection of property rights and improved freedom of speech and religion. It introduced better standards of justice and restricted the King's powers of taxation. But the Magna Carta really only applied to Lords. It took another 474 years before the next major advancement for individual rights in Europe with the English Declaration of Rights in 1689. Then it would be a hundred more years before the United States' Bill of Rights expanded and extended those ideas again, and still 150 years after that before the legal protection of those rights would start to apply to everyone regardless of race or gender. Point is, the idea that government power should be restricted at all is pretty new in the scale of human history. And the notion that a government's only legitimate purpose is to protect individual rights remains a rarity around the world. But as Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his 1850 book, The Law: "Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." I believe that this is one of the most important ideas we've ever had as a species. And to the extent that these values have been adopted, they've led to incredible revolutions in science (which requires open inquiry and freedom of speech) and in industry (which can't grow or develop without robust property rights, low barriers to entry, and a high degree of freedom for people to trade and engage in entrepreneurship). This unprecedented shift in thinking created an explosion of wealth and prosperity that continues to improve people's lives as these ideas spread to other parts of the world. These are the ideas that broke the wheel in our world, but they're also the very things that Westeros has never had. Perhaps apart from Varys, the rulers and thinkers of Westeros don't seem to recognize either the inherent danger of concentrated power or the value of individual rights. Instead, their only interest is political domination. But in the end, the way to help people escape the poverty and misery that we see in every episode of Game of Thrones is pretty simple: Start playing a different game. SEAN Hey everybody, thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you're interested in learning more about FEE's perspective on maintaining the legal and ethical principles of a free society, we have a ton of articles and ebooks on the subject, plus we host seminars and events throughout the year, including our flagship conference, FEEcon. FEEcon is an awesome 3-Day experience featuring inspiring speakers on topics like the one we've talked about today. You can learn more about the conference and register to attend at Hope to see you there! And please, don't forget to check out for all the other content we're producing each week and go ahead and like and subscribe to @feeonline on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time.

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

Why Couldn't Daenerys "Break the Wheel"?

May 9, 2019


In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryon claims that her goal is to "break the wheel" of power crushing ordinary people under the spokes of the ruling class vying for power.

But what does that actually mean, and has Daenerys actually demonstrated any ability to do what she says she will?

On this episode of Out of Frame, we take a look at what it takes to create a world allows the majority of individuals to escape the kind of grinding poverty and misery so prevalent not just on fictional shows like Game of Thrones, but in the least free parts of our real world.

Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone

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