June 7, 2013
[Editor's Note: This article is spoiler-free.]
The popular HBO series Game of Thrones is ending its third season this Sunday, amid fan concerns over its rapidly dwindling cast of characters. The show is based on George R.R. Martin’s intricate fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has become an inspiration for commentary of all stripes. And while its complex and morally ambiguous characters have attracted many political and literary analysts, there are important economic lessons to be learned from the books as well.
Martin’s story touches on a variety of economic issues, from the implications of not having an economic system at all, to the problems of money and public finance. In another article (and in an interview), we have discussed these latter problems, and explained how the rulers of the continent of Westeros resort to the traditional methods of public finance: taxation, borrowing, and inflation.
The Political and Economic Means
In this article we will be discussing some of the other economic implications of the series, especially ideas about the social order and the role that peaceful cooperation, trade, and money play in the organization of society. Franz Oppenheimer famously distinguished between the “political means” and the “economic means” of organizing society. The former involves the forcible redistribution of wealth; wealth, however, is only created by those involved in the economic means of organization, which consists of peaceful production, trade, and exchange (1926, pp. 24-27).
This distinction shines through quite clearly in A Song of Ice and Fire. For instance, peoples as different as the Dothraki and the ironmen are stark examples (no pun intended) of the political means. Both societies produce little or nothing of their own, instead thriving on violence and plunder. A perfect illustration is found in the “words” (motto) of House Greyjoy, which proclaim, “We Do Not Sow.” The implication of course is that the men of the Iron Islands only reap the fruits of what others have sown. The Greyjoy words are a very apt description of the state, which is a fundamentally parasitic institution depending for its survival on the plundering of a productive populace.