Opinion

Why Nothing in Westeros Ever Changes (Besides the Size of the Dragons)

The first season of HBO’s House of Dragon is nearing its conclusion, and the Game of Thrones prequel has not disappointed.

Based on George R. R. Martin’s novel Fire & Blood, the new series depicts House Targaryen’s efforts to rule the Seven Kingdoms amid its own internal power struggles. The story takes place about 170 years before the events depicted in Game Thrones and centers on Rhaenyra Targaryen, a princess who’s named heir to the Iron Throne by her ailing father King Viserys. This puts her at odds with her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) and later her infant brother, who also have claims to the throne.

While I was initially skeptical that House of Dragon would bring back the magic of Westeros, the series has managed to live up to the hype (so far). The show’s writing and acting are superb, and just like GoT, the series explores power and morality through the gritty lens of realism. The realism is conveyed not just through the show’s ample sex and violence, but also the promise that the hero might actually not win or may not do the right thing. House of Dragon, like its predecessor Game of Thrones, is The Godfather of epic fantasy.

Viewers may be pleased to notice that, with the exception of the size of Targaryen dragons, almost nothing has changed in the Seven Kingdoms, even though nearly two hundred years have passed. Armies still fight with swords and arrows. Most of the people are still poor. Soldiers ride horses. Farming is presumably the primary occupation for the vast majority of people who are not lords or ladies.

To understand why so little has changed in Westeros, one need only look to our own world. Though many of us have personally witnessed massive change and innovation in our own lifetime, this was the exception, not the rule, in history.

A Wealth Explosion

Economist Brad Delong has noted that the standard of living didn’t change much for most of the last two thousand years, and GDP figures from Our World in Data confirm this.

In 1 AD, the GDP of the entire world was less than $182 billion (in 2011 US dollars). A thousand years later, global GDP was higher, but not by much—an estimated $210 billion. A few hundred years later, the world’s GDP was actually lower. Four hundred years after that, in 1700, the world’s total GDP was still only about $640 billion.

In other words, the world had changed very little over a period of 1700 years, at least in terms of material wealth.

That changed the next century, however. By 1820, global GDP had increased to $1.2 trillion. By 1870 it was $2 trillion. On the eve of World War I, global GDP was $4.74 trillion and by1950, despite the two most catastrophic and deadly wars in human history, it was up to $9 trillion. By 1998, it was $58 trillion and by 2013 it was $101 trillion.

The evidence for this miraculous growth in wealth is visible all around us. From automobiles and computers, microwaves and laundry machines, to sunglasses, TVs, and cell phones, most middle-class families own goods that were scarcely imaginable a century ago. Things as vital as toilet paper, toothpaste, and hot showers are available to most of the people in the world.

‘Peace, Easy Taxes, and Justice’

It’s no coincidence that the rise in material wealth the world witnessed over the last 250 years coincided with the global rise of capitalism.

When Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, he offered the world a roadmap to wealth creation. It was surprisingly simple. Peace and trade—not brute force, coercion, or the yolk of slavery—was the formula.

“Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things,” Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The formula might be simple, but its execution is not. The world of Westeros shows us why.

While many of the characters in Game of Thrones and House of Dragon are interesting, and some are even good, it’s impossible to miss that Westeros is a land defined by war, injustice, power, and plunder.

In the first season of Game of Thrones, we see the Crown is basically bankrupt. King Robert is spending money the Crown doesn’t have, and “beggaring” the realm in the process, placing an immense burden on his people (who will eventually be the ones to pay off the Crown’s debts). Over the course of eight seasons, viewers witness what is largely a bloody power struggle to rule.

House of Dragon offers its own examples. We quickly see that the Crown is a source of aggression, not benevolence. In the very first episode, Daemon Targaryen, the king’s brother, descends on Flea Bottom (the most poverty-stricken party of King’s Landing) with his Gold Cloaks (i.e. the city watch) to bring “law and order” to the district.

“My brother’s city has fallen into squalor. Crime of every breed has been allowed to thrive,” he says. “No longer. Beginning tonight, King’s Landing will learn to fear the color gold.”

In the darkness, men are accused by the Gold Cloaks—”thief!” “raper!”—and rounded up. They are not tried, but executed on the spot. Daemon himself takes at least one man’s head. All it takes is the accusation from a Gold Cloak.

While there is some fuss the next day over Daemon’s actions, the king’s council ultimately overlooks the carnage, reasoning that Daemon’s actions, draconian though they may be, project strength and power.

This is why nothing changes in Westeros. It’s a land where power rules and individual rights do not exist. Whatever wealth people manage to accumulate can simply be taken from them by anyone—whether it be their lord, pirates, or the Crown itself—who has more power than they do. The king’s justice is rarely to be found.

Adam Smith was correct when he observed that the formula to wealth creation is surprisingly simple: easy taxes, peace and the adequate administration of justice. But Westeros shows us this is hardly easy to achieve, especially where power is concentrated and those who wield it are rarely held accountable.

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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Jon Miltimore

Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has been the subject of articles in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Star Tribune. Bylines: Newsweek, The Washington Times, MSN.com, The Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, The Federalist, the Epoch Times. He previously served in editorial roles at The History Channel magazine, Intellectual Takeout, and Scout. He is an alumni of the Institute for Humane Studies journalism program, a former reporter for the Panama City News Herald, and served as an intern in the speechwriting department of George W. Bush.

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