Warning: the following article contains mild spoilers from A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Every year, between March and April, a new season of the HBO hit A Game of Thrones airs; and every year, at the dawn of spring, analysts, journalists, academics and so forth have a go at understanding the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series created by George R. R. Martin, upon which the TV show is based.
It is no wonder, given the complexity of the world Martin has created and his renowned ruthlessness towards his characters, that most of these analyses focus on the realist theory of international relations, whose power-driven actors compete for dominance by means of military prowess and strategic thinking. According to them, the known world has a bismarckian aura of Realpolitik about it: this, this, and this are good examples that show how widespread said phenomenon is. In particular, the main setting of most of the books, the continent of Westeros, seems to resemble the feudal system of medieval Europe, with its arranged marriages, God-fearing simpletons, warmongering vassals, pretenders to the throne, and inexplicably intricate dynasty lines. Backstabbing and treachery are the norm around Westeros, and honour may mean little when gold can buy fealty, or destroy it. It is not a strive for grandeur the drives the characters, but an innate instinct of preservation. Winter is coming is the motto of House Stark, and winter is a cold and dark season that can drive men mad, while going onto lasting for decades. In such a nightmarish setting, how could mistrust and self-defence not be the main characteristics of the actors?
Yet little is said of the economic aspect of the series. One could argue that there is, in fact, little to say. Gold is needed to build castles, to pay the farmer and the engineer alike; it is needed for counsels as well as bribes; it is scavenged in times of war and robbed in times of peace. Gold makes the world of A Song of Ice and Fire turn around, yet we don’t really know where it comes from, nor how wealth is amassed. We know there is the Iron Bank of Braavos, yet the banking system is not nearly as advanced as we know it today: the bank loans and the bank will have what is due – and that is as much.
However, in Martin’s world, gold can also buy something that is almost unthinkable in the civilized world of today: slaves. The slave trade supports the economy of Essos, one of the four continents of the known world, and its influence is felt as far as Westeros. If the slave trade in A Song of Ice and Fire is half as important as that in the real world at its height, then no less than the 0.3 per cent of the world population was sold and bought at auctions, more often than not from merciless slavers to despicable masters.
Daenerys Targaryen plays a huge role in the dismantling of the slave trade in Essos. Queen Daenerys is one of the pretenders to the Iron Throne of Westeros and is currently exiled in Essos. She is on a quest to assemble an army big enough to fight against her foes and regain the throne. During her wanderings, however, she decides – maybe out of piety, maybe out of sympathy, maybe pushed by her own morals – to free all the slaves in the cities she visits to gather her soldiers. The freedmen, then, become her own people and acclaim her as “Mhysa”, mother.
Slavery entails a number of things, among which there certainly is the ethical aspect of the inequality between human beings, such as when one man owns another, and the economic consequences of the slave trade. Why is it that the quest for emancipation through the dismembering of the slave trade disrupts the peace in Essos? To answer this question, it is necessary that the words spoken in A Dance with Dragons be analysed through the lenses of the public choice theory and utilitarianism.
Economics is by definition the science of allocating scarce resources. However, the economic actors are more often than not driven by incentives, which, in conditions of dearth, may not align perfectly with the most rational choice. This is what the public choice theory tells us. Politicians – and by extensions, political rulers – “stay human” even after they’ve been elected (or, in some cases, appointed). Their humanness can go both ways. It can be so that their own incentives do not align with the public good or, on the contrary, it can enhance their civil sense. Comedian Andrew Heaton, starring in a short educational video for EconPop, underlined that in the United States congressmen “have their own personal interests, like getting re-elected” and as such also have “an incentive to support laws based on their re-election campaign, not the general good”. After all, the ultimate goal (if not the sole one) of every politician is to get re-elected. And there really is nothing immoral about it. In the words of James Buchanan, public choice is nothing more than common sense; it is the positive – as opposed to the normative – side of politics.
Where does Daenerys fit in this? She does not get elected, and as such she should not worry about campaigning for re-election. She could devote all herself to her people; or she could be a tyrannical queen and only act in her own interest, for her own pleasure and happiness. While it is true that she has no interests in a democratic system and that getting re-elected is not even a problem for her, the lessons that the public choice theory teaches us can apply to the dilemma she faces. How to conciliate her fight for the freedom of the slaves in Essos with her need to find an army that only the masters could give her? In other words, where does Daenerys’s common sense lie?
Herein comes utilitarianism, which, according to John Stuart Mill, “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”, therefore it is not the agent’s own greatest happiness that matters, “but the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” For simplicity’s sake we assume no varying degrees of happiness, assigning but two values to happiness, with 0 corresponding to slavery and 1 to freedom. It is worth noting that Queen Daenerys is well aware of this utilitarian dilemma. After all, it is her who says, “[a] queen belongs not to herself, but to her people”.
An example of this attitude of motherliness towards her freedman and her warriors alike is when Symon Stripeback pleads her not to waste food on the dying for it was scarce enough for the living. “Food should not be wasted on the dying, Your Worship. We do not have enough to feed the living”. Yet Daenerys’s response is cold and cuts to the chase: “We’ll feed them here.” There seems to be a lack of common sense in her answer, but the truth is that it is not the queen talking, or the ruler or the pretender to the throne; it is the mother who has an obligation towards her children, that sacrifices herself for their own wellness, that treats everyone equally and loves each one not the tiniest amount more than the other.
Her demeanour can only be ascribed to a special class of judgements, one where the agent puts aside all their own preferences for the sake of social wellness. In the words of John C. Harsanyi, “[t]he judgements concerning social welfare are a special class of judgements of preference, inasmuch as they are non-egoistic impersonal judgements of preference.” However, anything beyond this line becomes a topic that transcends economics and cannot be analysed here. What is important about this passage is the consequences it bears.
“When you smashed the slave trade, the blow was felt from Westeros to Asshai. Qarth depends upon its slaves. So too Tolos, New Ghis, Lys, Tyrosh, Volantis.” These words are spoken by Hizdahr Zo Loraq, a Meereenese master Daenerys marries when she realises that the slaver cities of Essos are going to fight her to stop her quest for freedom. After all, “[w]hy would the triarches assist a queen who smashed the slave trade?”
In particular, Yunkai is willing to field five thousand soldiers to fight the queen in Meereen. Daenerys needs the support of the Meereenese masters (amongst whom is Hizdahr Zo Loraq), even though she did them wrong. In the end, Hizdahr says, “Yunkai will give [them] peace, but for a price. The disruption of the slave trade has caused great injury throughout the civilised world. […] The Yunkai’i will resume their slaving [and Daenerys] will not interfere.”
Daenerys is thus forced to abandon her principles and allow for the slave trade to continue. “This is the peace. This is what I wanted, what I worked for, this is why I married Hizdahr. So why does it taste so much like defeat?” Why does it, indeed? From her perspective it is certainly a defeat: she gave up her principles, she married a man she did not like, she let down not only herself, but her children too.
From a utilitarian standpoint, while certainly not a victory, it is far from a defeat. “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” said Jeremy Bentham. If we were to apply the values assigned to happiness, 0 and 1, we would fall into a paradox. Common sense would dictate that in order to achieve the peace, more men and women became slave, thus their happiness would be 0. Yet, this sacrifice was optimal as it avoided a condition of warfare, pushing for a value of happiness equal to 1. Assuming, again, no varying degrees of happiness, and strictly speaking in a Benthamian sense, two elements can settle the question of whether Queen Daenerys’s actions were right or wrong. The first element is the Hegelian dialectic between the master and the servant applied to the Meereenese slavers; the second element is the will of the slaves themselves – as absurd as it may sound, for slaves are treated as creatures held in contempt.
Without delving into the more complex and philosophically related problems of recognition that the Hegelian dialectic entails, the first issue can be expressed as follows: do the masters pursue their own interest by retaining slavery, or are they (even unconsciously) looking out for their own servants? Whose happiness are they promoting? The slave-master dialectic Hegel intended was meant to be as the supremacy of one party over the other. At first, the slave, as he has just become such, is far more afraid of the master than he of the slave. However, as time goes by, the master discovers the value of the slave and is willing to treat him better, strengthening the bond between the two. The master is thus running towards an inexorable decline where he becomes afraid of losing his status quo. He has grown wont to the servant and does not see himself without him anymore. In the latter stages of the relationship, therefore, it is the slave that becomes stronger and stronger, until he may even try and break the chains that tie him to the master. Which brings us to another question: without Daenerys coming and freeing them, would the slave of Meereen have revolted against the masters?
In order to answer these two questions, it is important to introduce the second element of the story: the will of the slaves. In the story most slaves are actually content with their condition, be it because they don’t know any better, be it because they’re entering the latter stage of the Hegelian dialectic with their respective masters. They see themselves as weak, unable to take arms and to govern the city. They think they need their masters to survive, even if they have the upper hand in the household. When Daenerys settles in Meereen, thus making it the royal residence, she is willing to listen to what every single citizen has to say to her, be they former masters or former slaves. These auditions are two-fold: on the one hand she presents herself as a benevolent queen who aspires to be loved, even though this could be discarded as the simple naivety of a young girl; on the other hand, she does so to further learn about her own people and integrate with their customs (e.g. when she starts wearing the local dress, the tokar). If Daenerys’s incentive cannot be re-election, at the very least she aims not to be overthrown.
When the masters lament the situation the new queen has brought about, their main objective is to restore slavery and regain the now-lost position of power both in their households and in the city. From this point of view, they are simply promoting their own happiness. Yet, it is clear there is more than just that to their claims. Slaves, in particular the elder, also bring to Queen Daenerys the same problems as their masters: what are they going to do now that they cannot serve their masters and their families anymore? Some of them had become preceptors to the young noblemen and noblewomen, others would simply have no place to go after making of their master’s house their own world.
In an anti-climatic convergence of interests, the unintended (bad) consequences of Daenerys’s (good) actions come ashore: the greatest happiness cannot be found in the greater number of people she freed. The values of 0 and 1, assigned respectively to slavery and freedom, do not correspond to a state of non-happiness (or the reverse of happiness, as Mill called it) and happiness.
This unlikely and bizarre cooperation lets the paradox come to the fore. Simply put, slavery brings the greatest happiness. As outrageous as it sounds, it does so in a very specific setting, when the incentives of both the oppressed and the oppressor align. And they align when an established system that has been going on for centuries and benefits both parties is threatened.
In the United States congressmen have an incentive to support laws that benefit not only their person, but their district as well, for it is the latter that guarantees them their re-election, which is their ultimate aim. This makes alignment patterns between the different congressmen difficult to achieve – what may be needed in Iowa could prove nothing short of useless in Texas or Alabama. The wise masters of Essos have a very different mind-set: not only do they eschew any possible friction between them (at least none is known of in the books), but the dismembering of the slave trade carried out by Queen Daenerys shows that their own interests align far more with those of the slave than any interest of a free American congressman could with those of a free American voter. What to make of freedom when you are fed, loved, and cared after?
If the economics of happiness were to be set under the laws of utilitarianism, could we witness a system akin to Meereen’s, a real world Essos?
I would like to thank Pietro Moroni for his useful suggestions.
Bentham, J. (1891). A fragment on government. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd..
Harsanyi, J. C. (1953). Cardinal utility in welfare economics and in the theory of risk-taking. The Journal of Political Economy, 61(5), 434.
Martin, George RR. A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five. Random House LLC, 2011.
Mill, J. S. (1971). Utilitarianism (Vol. 7). Bobbs-Merrill.