A song of fire, ice, killing and trade
One of Daenerys Targaryen’s last acts before she sets off to capture Westeros from the Lannisters at the very end of the sixth season of Game Of Thrones is renaming Slaver’s Bay, Bay of Dragons. This was preceded by military campaigns in which she frees slaves after every success. Her growing empathy for ordinary people is in stark contrast to the brutality towards them in almost every other storyline. The seventh season of the television series began this week.
It is not hard to see the popular television series—and the George R. R. Martin books on which it is based—as a fable about Europe just before Renaissance. This was just around the time when feudalism was being replaced by capitalism. The stark contrast between the feudal Seven Kingdoms of Westeros on the one hand, and the nine quasi-capitalist Free Cities across the sea on the other, throws light on the dangers of organizing society based on violence rather than trade. The economist Albert Hirschman had in one of his classic works shown how civilization advanced as passions were gradually replaced by economic interests as the main organizing principle of human society.
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are ruled by militaristic clans that forever seek territorial dominance. The economic system is based on extraction of rents. Public finance is dominated by the need to raise resources for war. Shifting alliances create immense instability. War is glorified. The people are kept happy through lavish displays such as sporting tournaments or royal weddings. Shortages of essentials such as food are dealt with by starving people or capturing new territory rather than by trading with surplus areas. Westeros is the epitome of feudalism.
The Free Cities are another world altogether. They could remind viewers of the Italian port cities where the European Renaissance first took root—Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan. These independent cities are known for the quality of goods that they trade in. They are cosmopolitan. Trade has largely replaced conquest as the main political goal. The city of Volantis sinks into poverty when it tries to capture other cities. It regains its economic vitality only when it goes back to its trading roots. There is a strong banking system that provides credit. Rule is not centralized with one family but is shared by the powerful. Bouts of political instability do not habitually result in civil war. These cities also know that they need strong militaries—and alliances—to protect their freedoms.
The Free Cities are not some utopia. There is slavery, which is the biggest blot on their record. Powerful trading families control the polity. Power struggles lurk under the surface. There are killings. But even the imperfections of the Free Cities do not drag them down to the barbaric chaos of Westeros.
In 2006, economists Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast wrote an ambitious paper that sought to provide a conceptual framework to interpret recorded human history. It is worth quoting at length: “Beginning 10,000 years ago, limited access social orders developed that were able to control violence, provide order, and allow greater production through specialization and exchange. Limited access orders provide order by using the political system to limit economic entry to create rents, and then using the rents to stabilize the political system and limit violence. We call this type of political economy arrangement a natural state. It appears to be the natural way that human societies are organized, even in most of the contemporary world.
“In contrast, a handful of developed societies have developed open access social orders. In these societies, open access and entry into economic and political organizations sustains economic and political competition. Social order is sustained by competition rather than rent-creation. The key to understanding modern social development is understanding the transition from limited to open access social orders.”
Open access orders are still the best bets for human progress. Trade rather than violence is the superior organizing principle for human society. Capitalism is a far better system than feudalism (or other forms of pre-capitalist orders that are habitually glorified). Even the imperfections of the commercially minded Free Cities are superior to the brutality of militaristic Westeros.
As Ser Jorah famously tells Daenerys in the original books: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.”
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