Alberto Mingardi  

Would you vote for Tyrion Lannister?

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On the Liberty and Law blog, Mike Rappaport has an interesting post on the politics of Game of Thrones. I got caught up in Game of Thrones by the HBO TV series, which is marvellously engaging. Then I started to read the novels: they are very long, sometimes too long indeed (do we really need to know every single palpitation of Daenerys Targaryen's heart, for example?) but enjoyable. G.R.R. Martin, as Rappaport points out, is writing a story about power, more than anything else. What interests him is how power can be achieved (by war, by marriage, through complex legacy systems or by semi-elective systems, as it is the case with the Iron islands after Balon Greyjoy's death) and how it can be preserved (though this happens very rarely, in the seven kingdoms) but also how it affects the rulers (Daenerys' father went mad, Stannis experienced a religious conversion for the sake of obtaining the throne, Cersei believes she is above everything).

Rappaport points out that Martin presents basically three different styles of leadership:

On the one hand, there is the philosophy of governance of the Starks - Ned and his eldest son, Robb. Both of these leaders are admirable men in a way - they are mainly honorable and seek to follow moral norms. Yet disaster befalls both of them. (...) Thus, honorable and nonstrategic leaders are a bad deal in Martin's world.
At the opposite extreme are leaders who are strategic and conniving, but are mean and are willing to make enemies of those they regard as beneath and unable to harm them. These are the despicable characters - the three Lannisters - Joffrey, Tywin, and Circe. Joffrey gets killed because a powerful lady regards him as a moral abomination. Tywin is killed at the hand of his son who takes revenge against Tywin's outrageous parental behavior. Both Joffrey and Tywin don't believe they will be harmed for their actions, but they are overconfident and mistaken.
By contrast, Martin appears to endorse an intermediate type of leadership - one exemplified by Tyrian Lannister. Tyrian is a strategic thinker, both anticipating the actions of others and reading their behavior. But Tyrian is an essentially good man, one who often has the best interests of others in mind. Another person in this category is Varys, who is strategic and shrewd, but is genuinely interested in peace and justice.

Now, I'm not so sure I would put Tywin Lannister (a shrewd Machiavellian who has no heart but wields indisputable brain power) in the same basket as his daughter Cersei (who deludes herself to be a shrewd Machiavellian, but turns out to be ultimately a spoiled girl, utterly out of her depth) and his grandson Joffrey (a sadistic idiot). But Rappaport nailed it.

One caveat: Game of Thrones is mostly serenely un-democratic; wanna-be bosses do not need to fake a concern for their subjects. This makes its politics something like politics in the purer form, without that exercise of hypocrisy which is necessary whenever rulers have to be chosen by the wider mass.

The Starks are leaders who prize honour above everything else: this applies to Ned and Robb but also to the bastard son of Ned, John Snow. Not that they are enlightened rulers--quite the opposite. They uphold tradition (including the death penalty, which is made honourable by the fact the executions happen by the hand of the king) and, for its sake, make plenty of terrible tactical mistakes.

Tywin Lannister is strategically a genius but believes in nothing and cares for nothing but his family's power. Now, this doesn't mean that he doesn't have deep rooted passions. He does, and his plans ultimately fail because he is blind to the fact that Tyrion is, intellectually speaking, Tywin's true heir (but Tyrion happens to be a dwarf, and Tywin cannot accept that). Overtly rationalistic leaders, Martin seems to suggest, can be failed by passion and prejudices they do not understand as such.

Here comes Tyrion (don't know about Varys, the manager of a kind of police state-into-the-state). Tyrion is a good man who doesn't have the weaknesses of his sister, or his father for that matter, because, for all his family's prestige his dwarfness made him an outsider in his own family circles. Tyrion doesn't pass through the typical phases in the cursus honorum of a young lord. He reads rather than fights, but is not "better" than the others just because of his knowledge (though that helps). He is a better ruler because, being an outsider, he tends to sympathise with other outsiders: from whores to mercenaries. This brings him to have a deeper understanding of humanity, but also allows him to look at the "game of thrones" with more lucidity.

Rappaport asks if there is any lesson we can take out for contemporary politics. I fear not. Martin sticks with a very old, venerable wishful thinking: to be a good ruler you need to be a balanced, intelligent, human but not a naive person. But that person, Tyrion, is constantly not seen for what he is by other players. They despise him as a dwarf, forget his contribution to the Battle of the Blackwater (they prefer to believe they won because of a phantom's appearance!), and regularly fail in appreciating his qualities.

We like Tyrion because we are, like him, outsiders: we looked at the Game of Thrones in a rather dispassionate way, as a game indeed. But what does happen when we do not watch a game but, rather, play it? Those who are closer to playing the Game of Thrones have a radically different point of view than ours, on Tyrion - and Martin may be suggesting that is a good example of political myopia.

It would be good to have rulers who are balanced, intelligent, human but not naive. But would voters vote for them?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Tom West writes:

Best not to make too much of a hero out of Tyrion.

After all, he does order the gang-rape of his wife because his father spread lies about her that made Tyrion feel humiliated.

It does say something about GRRM's talent as a writer that I've heard even ardent feminists say "Poor Tyrion!". The scene can feel very much a "Tyrion is victimized by his father" rather than "Tyrion can be a monster".

Was Othello a pitiable victim of Iago, or a monster?

Carl writes:

Nice post, Alberto.

Funny how one feels admiration and even sympathy for Tywin. He's probably the most ruthless player and is surrounded by people who just don't get it.

Jon Gunnarsson writes:

Tom West,
you must be mis-remembering things. It is Tywin, not Tyrion, who orders the gang-rape of Tyrion's wife.

matteoZ writes:

Mike Rappaport calls Tyrion "Tyrian" ?!

Tom West writes:

Apparently I have. Thanks for clarifying.

Thomas Sewell writes:

It seems to me that the whole world-view of the series suffers from a myopia where it is assumed someone must be a tyrant in order to make the "trains run on time" and the only choice is what type of tyrant is best. This is a popular conceit among those who see a certain type of Harvard-educated man as the savior of those who are presumed to not be as wise as the elite of the Cathedral are.

It would be good to have rulers who are balanced, intelligent, human but not naive.
Ruling people for their own good of course, with nary a thought for public choice economics in their head?

Au contraire, it would be good to rule ourselves and not have any ruler with enough power over us that it matters what their individual personality leads them to do.

Daublin writes:

My view is that in Game of Thrones, the common people are mostly unaffected by the rulers, except when it comes to war. When they war with each other, or when they (fail to) war against the Others coming down from north of the wall, then everyone suffers. Outside of war, though?

Well, what does it *really* matter if the rulers are totally depraved in bed with each other? What does it matter which charities they support? How much difference does the tax policy really make? Game of Thrones is a story where the aristocrats are playing the Game with each other, and everyone else hardly even knows or cares or is affected by it.

A specific example is Margery, who is unusual for being a great sympathizer of the poor. Even she doesn't appear to actually *do* anything, though. She just likes hanging out in slums and being adored.

This lesson applies very well in real life. You can hire a good military general, and you can hire a good CEO, because these are measurable skills. It's hard to see, though, how a good general purpose ruler. That's why the U.S. works as well as it does. There's not much presumption that the president is going to be a general-purpose leader and make the country a massively better place. Rather, everyone finds a role they are good at, on their own, and collects in groups where they are effective. We do well by having good people that are free to pursue what they are good at, rather than by having a mastermind orchestrating everything.

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