Schelling in Westeros
I have just gotten on the Game of Thrones train, and have been impressed by the show. Not just the plot or characters, which are great, but for deeply exploring the politics of feudalism. A few random observations from a loosely political-science perspective:
- Legitimacy matters, even in authoritarianism. The driving plot of the show is a war between would-be Kings with claims to the throne of varying quality. Even in a world without the “divine right of kings”, people care deeply about the quality of these claims – the line of succession is the way to allocate power in the world, and everyone is invested in how these decisions are made.
- Consent matters too. As is made very clear, no man can rule by his own will alone – each depends on his advisers and generals and his line soldiers. The “consent of the people” isn’t of central importance, but the consent of the security apparatus is vital. Leaders’ fortunes can turn dramatically when their guards, generals, and fighters decide they are not worth fighting for.
- Feudalism provides little public security. Traveling in Westeros is insanely dangerous. Basically every journey taken involves numerous exciting and perilous encounters with bandits, rogue armed bands, and other sundry threats. The state isn’t much better at providing sewage either – it mostly enriches the lords and ladies of Westeros. One hypothesis is that the state is not purely extractive, but that all economic surplus is devoted entirely to preparing food banks for the long winters.
Most importantly, power doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis. Some of the most powerful of Westeros can fall in an instant – to arms, to betrayal, or to assassins. Some characters who seem mere hangars-on can command vast forces. There are powerful informational assymetries in Westerosi forces – often it is not possible to know who is truly powerful until it is tested. For example, your enemy has many bannermen, but how many will actually follow him to war? Your enemy has black magic on his side…but how well does it really work? The ambiguity of power in the feudal world encourages conflict by making deterrence harder – it is easy to believe one has an achievable route to victory in this conflict.