Bryan Caplan  

No Plan for What Comes After

Does Canada's Liberal Party Vi... Schengen, adieu...

My elder sons got the first four seasons of Game of Thrones for their thirteenth birthday, so I get to watch the whole series again.  Season 2, Episode 4 is even more pacifistic than I remember.  Crucial scene: Talisa, the battle surgeon, handily exposes the shallowness of the honor of Robb Stark, King in the North.

Talisa: That boy lost his foot on your orders.

Robb: They killed my father.

Talisa: That boy did?

Robb: The family he fights for.

Talisa: Do you think he's friends with King Joffrey? He's a fisherman's son that grew up near Lannisport. He probably never held a spear before they shoved one in his hands a few months ago.

Robb: I have no hatred for the lad.

Talisa: [sighs] That should help his foot grow back.

Robb: You'd have us surrender, end all this bloodshed. I understand. The country would be at peace and life would be just under the righteous hand of good King Joffrey.

Talisa: - You're going to kill Joffrey?

Robb:  If the Gods give me strength.

Talisa: And then what?

Robb: I don't know. We'll go back to Winterfell. I have no desire to sit on the Iron Throne.

Talisa: So who will?

Robb:  I don't know.
Talisa: You're fighting to overthrow a king, and yet you have no plan for what comes after?

Robb: First we have to win the war.

Only fiction?  Think again.  Robb's a typical politician: too obsessed with winning to dwell on whether the game is morally permissible, much less worth playing.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Hugh writes:


I am sure your thirteen year old sons will only enjoy the pacifist bits whilst being bored by the sex 'n gore.

Colombo writes:

Watch real sex and gore in a wild life documentary. No actors, no script, just raw and nasty reality.

Seth writes:

Tenacious D covered this in their song "City Hall."

Rock Lobster writes:

The term you should be seeking is "evolutionarily stable strategy."

It is not, and realistically has never been, possible to prosecute a war exclusively against "the guy in charge" on the other side. At a minimum you'd be fighting soldiers, many of whom are not volunteers, and more realistically civilians often wind up killed, displaced, starved out, etc.

If your side fails to rationalize this behavior somehow, it will simply be wiped out by the side that can, and your thoughtful descendants won't be around to debate the matter. Not surprisingly all modern human groups seem to have a war mentality that can be "switched on" in certain circumstances.

There are also the game-theoretic implications of committing in advance to not fight as hard as possible to win. As horrifying as it is to imagine, the basic logic of MAD during the Cold War required us to publicly stand ready to indiscriminately kill millions of innocent civilians if missiles were launched in our direction.

Collective action problems are an enormous pickle for a morally pure existence, I'm afraid. We have practical solutions to them, but not "moral" ones in the conventional sense.

Alyssa K writes:

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philemon writes:
Robb's a typical politician: too obsessed with winning to dwell on whether the game is morally permissible, much less worth playing.

...but not obsessed enough not to offend the Karstarks and thus lose their support, and not obsessed enough to forgo marriage with Talisa and thus reneging on earlier agreements with Walder Frey (thus eventually leading to his own death and the death of most of his closest supporters at the Red Wedding).

Jay writes:

To be fair to Robb, Talisa does somewhat ignore his counterfactual "You'd have us surrender, end all this bloodshed. I understand.". It would have been interesting to see what Talisa's preferred alternative would have been.

DPHall writes:

The only thing I can think of while reading this post is "dude, you gave hyper-sexual, uber-violent Game of Thrones to your 13 year old boys? Really??"

Reid Kelley writes:

This right here is a great demonstration of why Mr Caplan's pacifism makes very little sense - it's a position that seems sensible only to one who is already very secure. It fails to answer the basic game-theoretic critique, namely that the potential other side often isn't playing with the same values and end-goals. If your potential enemy doesn't give a damn about the potential damage done to your people should a fight break out, only the threat of you resisting and injuring things he does care about will dissuade him from attacking and injuring you.

A preemptive policy of surrender in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones wouldn't yield Robb peace - it would yield his head on pike and his family destroyed, and his people oppressed. Why? The people who he would surrender to would still see him as a threat, and would take action to disarm him; and the action would be seen as a sign of weakness by those who only care about extending their own power and wealth. This isn't a hypothetical scenario - the second he does show weakness, two of his powerful underlings (the Freys and the Boltons) conspire to eliminate him, leading to his death and the slaughter of his soldiers and supporters. His position was always on the edge of the knife - with one misstep leading inevitably to destruction. To consider Game of Thrones as making argument for pacifism writ large requires ignoring the actual political realities its people live in. (This is not to say that it doesn't make an argument that those political realities are really terrible ones - I think that George RR Martin is in part trying to demonstrate that the happy picture of the Medieval period that has become a trope in fantasy literature is distinctly wrongheaded.)

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