In my third and final post on the political economy of Westeros, I want to address a question that has bothered me about A Song of Ice and Fire since I was first introduced to it. Many of the Lords Paramount have ruled their part of Westeros for thousands of years. The Starks, the Arryns and the Lannisters are the most obvious examples, but there are many others. In our world, however, there is far more turnover in who rules and who serves. This is not to say that families never stay in charge for long periods of time, but precious few families have kept their surnames and crowns for more than a few centuries. And to my knowledge, none have done so for more than 2000 years, like the Starks and the Lannisters. So it struck me that this was one of the least realistic things about social life in Westeros besides magic, of course.

But now I’d like to offer a theory as to how their power persists: Weirwood-modified genetics. Consider the following:

  • We know that some genetic effects in Westeros persist for very long periods of time. The Starks have long, brooding faces, and dark hair, the Baratheons have coal-black hair and the Lannisters have golden hair and green eyes, typically. The Targaryens, obviously, have silver-gold hair and purple eyes of various hues.
  • We know that genetics can be influenced by magic, from GRRM’s own mouth (I heard this by report from Aziz and Ashaya at History of Westeros, but I can’t find the source through Googling.
  • We have some reason to believe, following Greg Clark’s recent, extensive work in The Son Also Rises on the persistence of social advantages in many countries across history that there is probably some genetic basis for social dominance even in our world. In our world, the dominance of certain families lasts for generations longer than it should if some kind of social skill were not heavily heritable. In Westeros, this effect is far, far stronger for a few families.
  • We know that nearly all the great castles have Weirwoods, including Casterly Rock and Winterfell (though the Eyrie has no weirwood, as the ground is too stony). Storm’s End, White Harbor and Riverrun all have weirwoods.
  • We know that at least in White Harbor and Winterfell, the faces on the heart trees resemble the faces of the families. The heart tree in Winterfell has a “long and melancholy face” much like Jon Snow and Arya, Eddard Stark and Lyanna Stark. The face on the weirwood in White Harbor is carved on a “trunk so wide that the face carved into it looked fat and angry.” True, many different families have ruled from White Harbor, but the face seems to correspond to the incredible girth of the Manderly men.

So here’s my theory: weirwoods dramatically slow genetic drift for those who live in their presence on a day-to-day basis. The faces in the weirwoods even have an effect on the appearances of the families who rule there. Thus, the face on Winterfell’s heart tree shapes the faces of the Starks.

If social advantage is partly genetic, as appearance is, and weirwoods produce extreme genetic stasis, then so long as the Starks begin to live around the weirwoods at the right time, their social advantage will be retained far longer than those who do not live near weirwoods. We’ve never seen the weirwood at Casterly Rock, but if it doesn’t look clever, tricky and sly, I’d be very surprised.

The Arryns are a problem for my theory, as they have retained control for an extremely long time (at least 6000 years) and without a weirwood in recent memory. But there is no obvious common genetic appearance to the Arryns, as far as we know, so at least that’s consistent. But I still need to explain how they maintained their power for so long.

That said, I may have explained the dominance of many of the great noble houses.

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I have a piece on CNN today about whether we should follow Scotland and let 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds vote. It’s a subversive piece. It’s easy to read it as advocating that we expand the franchise, but I’m underhandedly getting people to see that their arguments against letting high schoolers vote apply just as well to against letting many other people vote.

The key argument against letting high school juniors vote is simple: Their choice would affect all of us. After all, a voter chooses for everyone, not just him or herself. Many worry that most 16-year-olds lack the wisdom or knowledge to cast smart votes, so we don’t let them vote because we want to protect ourselves from their decisions.

And this concern is often grounded in reality — young adults are indeed in many cases profoundly ignorant about politics…

So far, so good. But:

As political scientists Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter noted in their 1996 book, “What Americans Don’t Know About Politics and Why It Matters,” political knowledge is not evenly spread among all groups. Membership in some demographic groups correlates with high levels of political knowledge, depending on region, income and education, while other groups tend to correlate with political ignorance.

So, this is the catch: If you wanted to exclude 16- and 17-year-olds on the grounds that they are more likely to be ignorant or misinformed, you would also in effect be arguing against other demographics having a say.

They edited out specific information about which groups. Care to guess which demographic groups (based on age, race, sex, income, location, etc.) tend to have low information?

What about letting all the kids who can pass the civics exam vote?

And what should we do if we still can’t get over our fear that 16-year-olds are too dumb to vote? Well, we needn’t exclude all of them. Instead, we could allow any child who can pass the U.S. citizenship exam to acquire the right to vote.

Of course, if you think that’s a reasonable standard for a 16-year-old to have to meet, it’s worth remembering that most voting-age adults cannot meet it either. So why should we demand more from our teenagers than we expect from ourselves?

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The right of self-determination, despite the stirring rhetoric of its advocates, is profoundly illiberal. It is not a right against a state but a right to a state. It is unconcerned with the legal and moral rights of individuals but with asserting a new sphere of political power –often more oppressive than the one left behind. It masks the ambitions of political entrepreneurs who claim to represent the “people” regardless of whether or not they have been properly elected, and regardless of the views of minorities and individuals who do not want to secede or be autonomous.

But the tension between self-determination and liberal principles runs deeper. The idea that collective entities have the right to determine themselves is so rooted in the political imagination and in international law that it may sound farfetched to deny it. Yet, if the right of self-determination means the right of some to forcibly enroll others in their projects, then I want to deny it.

Many people think that just as individual autonomy is a value, so group autonomy is a value; just as persons pursue individual projects, so groups pursue collective projects; just as persons seek the private good, so groups seek the collective good. But this analogy does not hold in a straightforward way. Surely groups can have great value for their members. Groups can facilitate the achievement of goals that cannot be achieved individually. But this moral value of groups holds as long as they are voluntary. Groups are importantly disanalogous to individuals. An individual has a mind that makes plans and weighs options, alternatives, values, and goals. She may err, of course, but her error will be the result of her considered judgment about how she desires to pursue her personal project, how to lead her life in her own terms. Groups, on the contrary, do not have minds. They are collections of individuals where some cooperate but others dominate, exploit, and prey on others. When an individual forms a life plan she acts freely (with the usual caveats and exceptions.). When a ruler devises a plan for society he coercively enrolls others in his projects, whether his projects are shared by many or few.

I do not dispute the claim that it is possible to say that groups have ends, interests, or projects that are not conceptually reducible to individual ends, interests, or projects. But it does not follow that the group leaders can coercively impose those ends on the dissenters within the group. This is quite obvious in the cases of non-democratic governance, but is also often true where majority rules. Most of the time an individual is the best judge of her interest and welfare; conversely, most of the time group rulers are not the best judges of the interests of its members.  This means that non-voluntary collective self-determination, that is, a collectively coerced decision about the political status, or the cultural identity, or the economic system of a group, is morally suspect.  The realization of human ends, including those that can be realized collectively, should in the last analysis be the result of voluntary interaction among free individuals. There are no non-consensual goods for collectives, nations, or tribes (over and above the goods of persons who comprise the collectivity) that group leaders can permissibly enforce. My claim is normative, not conceptual: the only morally valuable projects are (1) individual projects; and (2) voluntary group projects.



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