Game of Thrones and the free rider problem
Taking a break from the usual political blogging to write about something that’s been on my mind regarding A Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, of which I have in the past year become extremely obsessed with. It’s regarding a question that Tywin Lannister poses to his son Tyrion in season three of the show and A Storm of Swords, for book readers.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.
When Tyrion confronts his father over the infamous Red Wedding, Tywin dismissively says, “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.” On its surface, it’s a compelling dismissal and it actually leaves Tyrion, who is a clever man in most things but tends to brain fart when confronted with some of the more difficult questions of political theory, unable to answer. Indeed, I’ve debated this with friends who feel Tywin has a point, from a utilitarian point of view. In a sense, he did bring the war to an early end and saved lots of lives by arranging the Red Wedding.
But he only did so in the short term. But in the long run, he may have done more damage than good. A lot of fans of the series have a grudging respect for Tywin as a leader, because he’s effective in both the battlefield and in bureaucracy. Even his son, Tyrion, shows a lot of respect for Tywin’s methods. But I’d argue that respect is misplaced. It’s easy to think of Tywin as a good leader, but in reality he frequently gets his way because he’s a cheater. Or, in terms of game theory or political theory, he’s a free rider. And, as free riders do, he is getting his way, but only by undermining the system in such a way that it creates far more problems down the road.
You see, Tywin’s plan to kill Catelyn and Robb Stark, as well as many of their bannermen, only worked because he defied a long-standing Westerosi tradition of “guest right”, the idea that people who you invite into your home are owed your protection as long as they are under your roof. George RR Martin didn’t invent the idea of guest right. Most cultures throughout time have had some version of this idea that one of the most dishonorable things a person can do is mistreat a guest under their roof. The Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not, as fundies believe, a story about the butt secks so much as it’s a story about guest right and how the people of Sodom defied it by threatening to rape people (angels, it turns out) that are under their protection. To this day, the idea that your guest is a person of honor in your home persists in our rules of etiquette.
But guest right is more than a random, arbitrary rule. The reason it’s long existed is that peace is basically unachievable without it. Guest right—or hospitality or whatever you want to call it—is nice when people who are visiting are at peace. But if you are two groups that have tension, the belief that nothing is more dishonorable than killing a person you’ve brought under your protection becomes all the more critical. No one is going to go to a peace meeting if they fear being attacked at it. Many, many lives are saved because of spaces where people can meet with an assurance that no violence can happen there. Often those places are understood as someone’s home, precisely because of the ancient and strongly felt belief that one should not hurt people in your home or create violence in the homes of those who have welcomed you. Camp David is a modern example.
In medieval times—or in a fantasy world like Westeros—a lot of these peace accords involve things like weddings. That just makes it more important that weddings be peaceful events. If violence starts breaking out at weddings, people are going to be more reluctant to hold weddings, particularly weddings that are about bringing two hostile families together in a gesture of peace.
And so that’s what Tywin did. He didn’t just kill a dozen people at dinner. He broke down an important rule in his culture that allowed peace talks to begin, making it very likely in the future that many, many people who would otherwise be open to the idea of making peace through marriage will now be too afraid of being killed in the next Red Wedding to do so. He won this war, but by undermining the overall system of how peace is made, he made it much harder to prevent future wars, or bring them to an end through marriage.
This is what free riders do: They exploit the system for personal gain in such a way as to undermine the entire system. That is, what I’d argue, Tywin’s entire character has been about. He exploits the idea of “honor” when he needs it for protection, but he also unleashes monsters like the Mountain who have no use for honor, when it suits him. Oberyn Martell calls him out for the way he wants it both ways, to be able both to kill the children of his enemies but to do so at such a distance that he isn’t expelled by a system of honor. But by playing it both ways, Tywin undermines the system generally, making it much harder for future people to take it seriously. People need to trust the system for it to work, and Tywin works tirelessly to undermine that trust.
A lot of people like to make fun of Ned Stark for his devotion to “honor”, a devotion that got him killed. But honor is to Westeros what the rule of law is for us: An imperfect system, but one we must protect from corruption because overall, it’s the only way to keep the peace. People like Ned Stark need to exist, because without them, there would only be chaos. At the end of the day, Tywin is a Randian character, someone who acts purely out of selfish desires for an abstract notion of greatness. But that is a disastrous philosophy when it comes to social cohesion, as demonstrated by the endless war that Tywin’s schemes create. Tywin ended this war. But he made future wars much harder to end, suggesting that his choice has a much higher death toll than he is allowing himself to believe.
So what do you guys think?