Bryan Caplan  

Game of Thrones and the Common-Sense Case for Pacifism

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[Warning: Full of book and show spoilers.]

"And those who have not swords can still die upon them."  The words are J.R.R. Tolkien's, but they could just as easily have come from the pen of George R.R. Martin, author of the wildly popular Game of Thrones series.  Martin's fantasy world is hard and cruel, full of men (and more than a few women) deaf to reason and compassion.  It's hardly a fertile testing ground for idealistic doctrines.  Yet after finishing the most recent volume, I'm ready to defend a controversial thesis: Game of Thrones forcefully illustrates my common-sense case for pacifism.

My case for pacifism, to recap, comes down to three simple premises.  The first two are empirical:

Premise #1: The short-run costs of war are clearly awful. [Empirical claim about immediate effects of war].

Premise #2: The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain. [Empirical claim about people's ability to accurately forecast the long-run effects of war.]

These empirical claims imply pacifism when combined with a bland moral premise:

Premise #3: For a war to be morally justified, the expected long-run benefits have to substantially exceed its short-run costs. [Moral claim, inspired by Judith Jarvis Thomson's forced organ donation hypothetical.]

I've repeatedly argued that both empirical premises are true in the real world.  My task here is to show that they're true in a fantasy world that's practically designed to put pacifism to the sword.  If the case for pacifism makes sense in Westeros, it makes even better sense in the modern civilized world. 

I doubt many GoT fans will dispute Premise #1.  In Martin's world, soldiers don't just murder and mutilate each other.  They are lions and wolves to any civilian population they encounter.  As Tyrion bluntly tells his men at the Battle of the Blackwater:
This is your city Stannis means to sack. That's your gate he's ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape.
Virtually every active army in the books practices wanton pillage and mass rape.  (Stannis, ironically, is relatively scrupulous; he eventually gets rape under control by summarily punishing the crime with gelding).  When an army passes through a civilian area, they routinely take the people's food and burn their crops.  Starvation swiftly follows.  War also turns out to be a prime breeding ground for horrible diseases like the bloody flux

What about Premise #2?  Even Martin's best and brightest severely miscalculate the long-run effects of war. 

Consider the short career of Robb Stark.  After Joffrey arrests his father for treason, Robb raises an army, proclaims himself King in the North, and moves south.  He wins several victories, but his father gets executed anyway.  Robb sends his best friend Theon Greyjoy to win allies in the Iron Islands.  But Theon betrays Robb, joining a massive sneak attack behind Robb's lines.  Much of the North falls to House Greyjoy, and Theon captures - and ultimately burns - Winterfell, the Northern capital.  Before long, Robb is the much-mocked "King Who Lost the North."  When he tries to rebuild damaged alliances, Robb's ally Walder Frey assassinates him at the Red Wedding, scattering his once-proud army to the winds. 

There can be no doubt that Robb would have stayed home if he knew what was going to happen.  But his defeat hardly translates into triumph for his enemies.  Stannis loses most of his army in the Battle of the Blackwater, and eventually retreats to the North with a tiny remnant of his forces.  The Lannisters briefly reign supreme.  But the assassinations of King Joffrey and Tywin Lannister leave the paranoid Cersei in charge.  She quickly alienates her allies, empowers an upstart army of religious fanatics, and ends up running naked through the streets of King's Landing.  Not what she had in mind.

To be fair, GoT does feature a much more promising war: Daenerys Targaryen's anachronistic crusade to abolish slavery in the east.  My co-author Ilya Somin is almost ready to enlist:
Before I read the Red Wedding scene, I was - like most readers - inclined to sympathize with Robb and hoping that he prevails. His shocking demise led me to reflect on Robb's shortcomings and the underlying message of the series much more seriously than I otherwise would have. Superficially, Robb seems more admirable than the Lannisters; he has a sense of honor, and is not personally sadistic like King Joffrey. But his ultimate objective is actually very similar to theirs: to serve the interests of his House. He does not go to war to give the people of Westeros a better government, but to avenge his father's death and protect his family's position of power. It seems unlikely that Stark rule would be much better for the average Westerosi than Lannister rule. By removing Robb and emphasizing the narrowness of his political vision, Martin highlights the futility of his war for the vast majority of the people. Eliminating Robb also focuses more of our attention on Daenerys Targaryen. With her determination to abolish slavery and promote freedom, she is the one contender for the crown who actually does have an agenda that might benefit more than a tiny clique of elites.
If you look past Daenerys' good intentions, though, she also falls terribly short of satisfying Premise #3.  She begins by freeing the slaves of Astapor.  After putting power in the hands of freed slaves, she moves on to Yunkai.  She terrifies them into freeing their slaves as well.  Then she moves on to Meereen, conquers it, frees its slaves, and settles down.

Before long, though, her crusade comes apart at the seams.  The freed slaves of Astapor quickly create a new slave class.  War breaks out between Astapor and Yunkai, leading to Astapor's swift defeat.  After the horrible plague dies down, the Yunkai clearly plan to reimpose slavery and the status quo ante.  Quentyn Martell's eyewitness reaction:
The Red City was the closest thing to hell he ever hoped to know. The Yunkai'i had sealed the broken gates to keep the dead and dying inside the city, but the sights that he had seen riding down those red brick streets would haunt Quentyn Martell forever. A river choked with corpses. The priestess in her torn robes, impaled upon a stake and attended by a cloud of glistening green flies. Dying men staggering through the streets, bloody and befouled. Children fighting over half-cooked puppies. The last free king of Astapor, screaming naked in the pit as he was set on by a score of starving dogs. And fires, fires everywhere.
Meanwhile, Daenerys contends with reactionary terrorism in Meereen.  Pro-slavery forces from Yunkai and Qarth besiege her city.  Disease spreads like wildfire.  And Book 5 abruptly ends.  What will happen in Book 6?  I don't know, but I'm willing to bet it won't be pretty.

Looming in the background of all this conflict are two other factors almost every combatant fails or refuses to see. 

First, winter is coming - and in Westeros, seasons last years.  The war doesn't just disrupt the food supply; it preempts the population's last chance to gather food for the lean years ahead.  Mass famine is inevitable because every squabbling would-be king refused to back down.

Second, a mighty undead army is mustering north of the Wall.  The consequences of their invasion are unusually predictable: They hate all life and kill everything in their path.  War against these literal monsters probably doesn't run afoul of Premise #2.  Unfortunately, the preceding human-versus-human wars in Westeros leave mankind with little ability to resist the looming undead invasion.  (Well, it's fantasy, so maybe Daenerys will save the day with her dragons.  Maybe).  People's ability to forecast the long-run effects of war is so bad that they run out of resources long before the one war with clear long-run benefits crashes down upon them.

Of course, I can't fully dissect 5 kilopages of material in a single blog post.  True fans can no doubt point to counter-examples of wars that fulfill their promise.  My point, though, is not that wars in GoT always end badly.  My point, rather, is that their long-run benefits are extremely uncertain.  Wars in GoT often produce negative long-run benefits - and no one in the story is wise enough to foresee which wars will end badly. 

Under these circumstances, pacifism is common sense.  If you're going to unleash murder, rape, famine, and disease on the world, you'd better have a very good reason.  And you can't have a very good reason is you can't accurately forecast wars' long-run effects.  Swallowing your pride and sheathing your sword may not seem very heroic.  But this is precisely what a real hero in the world of George R.R. Martin would do.  Instead of glorifying the war-mongering of Robb Stark or Daenerys Targaryen, we should honor the common decency of Samwell Tarly.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Jake D writes:

Sure, the benefits from being a fighter are uncertain, and the costs are high, *conditional on going to war*.

But being "the fighting type" can also help you the other 95% of the time: people don't mess with you, because they know you'll fight back.

Would anyone listen to Tywin Lannister if he didn't have a reputation for crushing his foes?

Scott Wentland writes:

Do you think Martin's regimes resemble the developing world moreso than the developed world, and if so, what about thinking of the story's factions in terms of the "violence trap"?

The Cox/North/Weingast framework (see seems to fit Martin's world in a lot of ways. While am sympathetic to your pacifism argument (and I hope it would result in a better equilibrium), looking at it through a "violence trap" lens presents a starkly (no pun intended) different view that has different implications for the equilibria in Martin's world.

Remke writes:

In addition to the point that Jake D talks about, doesn't this run into a game-theoretic problem from the point of view of any of the state actors? Namely that it's only when both sides choose to fight that the outcome of a war is uncertain. If your side summarily drops out, "swallowing your pride and sheathing your sword" then the other side wins and may inflict damage on you and your people unopposed.

This is particularly true since the other actors are not making the same utilitarian calculus that Mr Caplan is, so they simply don't necessarily care or even agree that "the short-run costs of war are clearly awful". This is not exactly an empirical claim - it is a claim that a certain outcome, war causes a lot of destruction for lots-of usually non-noble people, is a bad outcome; and as such it is a claim that lots of the nobles who make decisions, including your likely enemies, probably don't care much about. And if they don't care about causing this kind of destruction when the benefit is uncertain, then why will they hesitate from wreaking this destruction when the benefit is certain because you aren't resisting in order to ensure that you can't change your mind and resist later.

So the leader who follows Mr Caplan's moral framework should still choose war - or at least should still be willing to relatively frequently resort to war despite the uncertainties of the outcome of any specific war. Then the non-leader has two potential choices (assuming his choice isn't coerced) - either assist his side or to not, where ceteris paribus assisting makes his side (slightly) more likely to win and thus limit damage to one's own people. So here again there is a case for going to war for the non-leader.

Harrison Searles writes:

"There can be no doubt that Robb would have stayed home if he knew what was going to happen."
This is false. Robb Stark marched on the south out of duty and household loyalty, not out of a prudential calculation of the benefits and costs of marching on the south. Starks do their duties. No matter the cost. Though we never get inside the Young Wolf's head in the books, in the series when Maester Luwin gives Robb the message of him having to go to Red Keep to swear fealty, he immediately decides to call his banners. There's no moment when Robb considerers the pro's and con's of his decision; he simply makes the decision he believes to be his duty.

As far as Daenerys goes, this argument is very weak since there's massive overlap between mutually contradictor positions here. Every single seasoned warrior with her told her that holding Meeren was a bad move bordering on suicide. When you're saying the same thing as people like Ser Barristan Selmy and Jorah Mormont were saying while saying it's the pacifist position, it isn't entirely apparent that it actually is the pacifist position. Instead, I'm more likely to simply say that it's the smart position.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

I dispute #3: Daenarys and Stannis have mastered the Other-killers: dragons and fire magic. If both of them walk away from the war, then winter is likely to kill everyone in Westeros.

Norman Pfyster writes:

Since it is pretty clear that Martin thinks war is bad, and is probably a pacifist himself, it's not surprising that the series portrays war in a bad light.

Greg G writes:

I see couple of big problems with this post.

For starters, once again "common sense" is redefined to be a point of view that is not at all common even if it is correct.

Second, pacifism is not only the unwillingness to fight to launch a war, but also the unwillingness to fight to defend against an invasion. You have done a reasonably good job of showing why launching an invasion is unwise. It does not follow from that that fighting to prevent yourself from being overrun is unwise.

Jody writes:

Seems to me if we're trying to make the outcome of war as profitable as possible, we should be in it for pillaging (if not annexing the territory) and genocide (if annexing the territory) as those create the highest possible upside. Neutron bombing when feasible.

With those off the table, wars of aggression are nowhere near as profitable as they used to be. And hence happen less often...

Hazel Meade writes:

One of the interesting thing about Game of Thrones is it's brutally Machiavellian outlook.

The Starks make political mistake after mistake due to their rigid code of honor - and it costs them their lives. Daenerys makes similar mistakes by being honorable and trusting instead of ruthless.

Invariably, the good guys lose because they fail to abandon their principles when it conflicts with their political self-interest.

Hazel Meade writes:

Also note that Rodd Starks downfall was caused by his overdeveloped sense of honor leading him to marry a girl he debauched from the wrong family, instead of keeping his promise to marry one of Walder Frey's daughters.

Maximum Liberty writes:


I disagree with premise #3 as being descriptive of anyone who would ever support a war. I think the more salient way of deciding is whether the net long-term cost of going to war is less than the net long-term cost of not going to war.

At the point of decision, this is necessarily an uncertain comparison of hypothetical situations. Tyrion's argument is not that the long-term benefits of fighting off Stannis outweight the short-term costs. It is that the risk of death from fighting him off is better than the assured destruction that would come from his victory. Tyrion is not arguing about whether "you're going to unleash murder, rape, famine, and disease on the world." He's saying that all of that has been unleashed and is on its way. Now, what do you do? Undoubtedly, all choices you have are bad. The comparison should lead you towards the least bad choices.

At the point of decision, a real decision-maker would have to engage a humber of heuristics in the face of enormous uncertainty about both the short-term and the long-term. Robb Stark's sense of honor and duty might be one. Danerys's opposition to slavery might be another.

After the fact, one choice was made and its results became apparent. After the fact, everyone can fantasize about what would have happened if the decision had been different. But those fantasies have both the benefit of hindsight knowledge and are usually as unprovable as the decision-maker's predictions of what will happen given either choice presented. I place most commentators' ideas about what would have happened if Bush had not led the US to war with Iraq into that category. We simply don't know what would have happened, other than it is different from what did happen.


MikeDC writes:

Doesn't the brutality of the average Westerosi army undercut the pacifistic argument?

That is, a pacifist leader in the Riverlands (attacked by the Lannisters), or the Lamb People (attacked by the Dothraki) can't argue the costs of waging a war of defense are worse than the costs of submission. Because in those cases, the attackers are simply obliterating everyone. So the calculus is:
1. Fight back and perhaps be raped and killed.
2. Submit to being raped and killed.

For that matter, the general opportunity cost of war is low. Life at peace for many segments of the population is nasty, brutish, and short, and life at war is only slightly more nasty, brutish and short.

Relatedly, I've concluded that in the ASOIAF world, "blessed are the peacemakers" should be replaced with "blessed are the hostage takers" because the best security against war appears to be the exchange and humane treatment of noble hostages. This can either be formal (e.g. Theon and the Redwine twins, or Jaime Lannister) or in the less obvious way of marring off family to secure peace (the Martells and Targaryens, Baratheons and Lannisters).

MingoV writes:

I favor pacifism, too. However, my pacifism will disappear instantly when war-mongers come calling.

I've read numerous historical studies of war, and they all show that the victors do not benefit in the long run. Ironically, in some cases (such as West Germany and Japan after WWII), the losers did better than the victors.

John Cunningham writes:

If pacifism had prevailed in Britain and the USA in 1939-41, the pacifists would now either be speaking German, or existing as lampshades.

LeRoy Matthews writes:

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Rob writes:


Also note that Rodd Starks downfall was caused by his overdeveloped sense of honor leading him to marry a girl he debauched from the wrong family, instead of keeping his promise to marry one of Walder Frey's daughters.

Did you mean: underdeveloped? The honorable thing would have been to keep it in his pants and uphold his oath.

DCM writes:

@ John Cunningham: if pacifism had prevailed in Britain and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913, 1939-1941 would have been an unremarkable 2-year span much like any other.

Brian writes:

Bryan's logic for pacifism is flawed. To see why, I will use the same logic to argue that we should wage war most of the time.

Premise 1: The short-run benefits of war are clearly good. (By definition, benefits are good. That there ARE benefits is obvious, otherwise war would never occur. Basically you get to take resources gathered by other's labor.)

Premise 2: The long-run costs of war are highly uncertain. (This is true by definition, since all long-term effects, good and bad, are uncertain.)

Premise 3: For war to be avoided, the long-term costs have to substantially exceed the short-term benefits.

See the problem? Bryan's "argument" is a masterful act of misdirection, the rhetorical equivalent of a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. The correct comparison should be benefits to costs in the short-term and then again in the long-term, not short-term costs to long-term benefits.

To avoid the misdirection, Bryan could talk about net payoffs, which would be benefits - costs. Using that language, let's look again at his premises.

Updated Premise 1: The short-run net payoff of war is clearly hugely negative.

Well, this is no longer true. It's easy to imagine short-run payoffs being positive. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone going to war without having positive short-run payoffs. Going to war represents a defection from the cooperative state of pacifism; as in the prisoner's dilemma, this only occurs when there's a net benefit from defecting. Otherwise, one has a coordination game and everyone cooperates.

Updated Premise 2: The long-run net payoff of war is highly uncertain.

OK, this is probably true by definition, since no one has a crystal ball. The long-run effects of war could be wildly positive or wildly negative. As noted above, both Germany and Japan did very well in defeat. Would the U.S. have remade Japanese society without their going to war with us? No.

Updated Premise 3: The decision to go to war effectively hinges on short-term payoffs unless the long-term payoffs substantially exceed them.

Premise 3 is valid, but it now says NOTHING about whether war is permissible or advisable. So it can't be used as an argument for pacifism, whether in the real world or in the Game of Thrones.

Please note that I am not arguing against pacifism. I am merely pointing out that, whatever pacifism's merits, Bryan's argument fails to say anything useful about it.

Zach writes:

The primal talent of surviving in a world of limited resources (well, there still are limited resources!, but not compared to 100,000 years ago) must somehow be entertained in this day and age in a way that doesn't substitute violence from GoT era or the era of the last 100 years with fiat currency's control over the masses...

Perhaps, the children's game minecraft with its incentivazation of creating will replace our age old game of surviving with the best use of violence and cunning thievery. Oh well, tit for tat of the masses may come some day, indeed.

Vanessa Bruno writes:

Game of Thrones and the Common-Sense Case for Pacifism, Bryan Caplan | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

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