I’ve decided to write a bit about some of the political and economic questions raised in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which I love and have just finished re-reading. You may be wondering why such a topic would be appropriate for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but you shouldn’t. If you read this blog regularly, you love politics, you love economics and you very likely love sci-fi/fantasy genre stuff. So objectors: stuff it.

Don’t worry. I’ll be careful to post spoiler tags [If you want to talk about spoilery stuff in the comments, PLEASE USE SPOILER TAGS]. This post involves no spoilers, so don’t worry (though there is a teensy risk of a spoiler tied to the maesters’ hostility to magic). Also, a terminological note: Westeros is one continent on what some call Planetos (the world has no official name) but I call it Os.

The question for this post is why Westeros (and Os more generally) seems stuck in a long-term technological stagnation. Westeros’s recorded history probably dates back to the Age of Heroes, which began after the signing of the Pact between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, and at least from the building of the Wall, 8000 years prior to the start of the books. Our recorded history only extends back around 6000 years, so Os-Civilization has at least two thousand years on us. It appears that in all that time, no civilization has reached a level of technological sophistication that heralds the beginning of modernity (though we do not know the level of technological sophistication in the Valyrian Freehold, I doubt they were on the cusp of modern industry). Westeros (and Essos) are stuck in a great stagnation of an awful sort. They can’t seem to stumble on key innovations required to reach our rate of economic development.

My theory is that the presence of magic is the cause of Os’s (but let’s focus on Westeros) great stagnation. Before I explain why, I’d like to forestall an alternative theory.


The alternative theory is that Os’s unpredictable and extremely long seasonal cycles make the accumulation of capital, human and physical, much more difficult. As any readers know, seasons can last for many years, and seem to be affected by magic. The books begin at the end of a long summer, progress through autumn, and are gearing up for winter in The Winds of Winter (to be released). There is some worry among a few characters that this winter will be long, not just because of seasonal predictions but because the return of the White Walkers may signal another Long Night. (FWIW, I predict the winter will be short, determined largely by the defeat of the Whitewalkers.)

The argument from unpredictable seasons and long winters goes a bit like this: (1) Given unpredictable seasons, it is hard for people to rationally plan how much harvest to store away, so many more people starve on a regular basis than in our world, and there is much more violent conflict during winters over remaining food, leading to more death. With fewer humans and less reliable survival, any built up capital will be almost entirely eaten away during the winter. (2) You might think humans would wise-up after a few thousand years, but perhaps due to ordinary human genetic short-sightedness, they just can’t seem to coordinate successfully enough to get out of a Malthusian trap. After all, it took us thousands of years. Maybe they haven’t stumbled on it yet.

But I don’t think this argument works for three reasons: (i) There are plenty of areas that don’t suffer horribly during winter. First, there’s the Summer Isles, the Basilisk Isles, and Sothoryos (we know next to nothing about it, save that it is covered in jungle). Closer to home we have Dorne, along with the Essos cities at a similar latitude (Lys, Volantis, Meereen) and those south of it (Astapor, Qarth, and probably Asshai). Maybe they get super cold, but probably not. So this reasoning won’t apply as forcefully to them. (ii) The people in Westeros aren’t stupid. Heck, Winterfell has hot-springs-fueled heating! So you’d think people could innovate enough to build up slowly over time. (iii) The winters may even impel people to be more innovative. The most advanced societies tend to be colder ones. If Iceland can thrive and flourish, why not the North?

Ok, so then what accounts for Westeros’s Great Stagnation? Magic. Here are three arguments.

(1)  Magic Increases the Opportunity Cost of Micro-level Scientific Inquiry – the presence of magic in Os distracts a great many people from coming to believe in the power prediction and observation. Magic gives many powerful minds people shortcuts around genuine problems, like knowing the future (Mel’s flames), long-distance communication (Glass Candles) and even bringing people back to life (the Last Kiss). So the incentive to engage in boring, rote, micro-level scientific inquiry will have less of an expected payoff compared to other forms of inquiry, like magical training. 

(2)  Magic Increases the (Subjective) Probability that Polytheism is True: arguably science first arose in cultures that had come to the theological belief that God or the gods (usually God) operated the universe according to observable, discernible rules. Perhaps there were miracles, but they were exceedingly rare. “Natural law” thinking helped to produce a scientific culture. But in a world with real magic as opposed to fake magic, people will naturally, and in many cases rationally, attribute magic to various gods engaged in shadowy activities. And since lots of people in all cultures can use magic, they will come to believe in many different gods, which helps explain why every religion in Westeros has at least two gods (unless you count the Many-Faced God, sort of, and he’s not recognized by many). So rational polytheism likely contributes to cultural practices less conducive to science than, say, 17th century Europe. The case for deism is rather weak in Os, and so the clock-maker universe is less intellectually available.

Maester Luwin

(3)  Magic Distracts and Discredits the Proto-Scientific Community: the Maesters, based at the Citadel in Oldtown, are the proto-scientific community in Westeros. They are powerful, influential healers, communicators (via ravenry), lawyers and scholars. However, they are frequently distracted from experimentation by a variety of matters. First, they despise magic, in part because it is so dangerous and unpredictable, and (probably) spend a great deal of energy trying to stop it. It is widely rumored that the Maesters probably helped to kill off the last Targaryen dragons (the last dragon died in 155AC (Aegon’s Conquest), whereas the books begin around 298AC), which are widely regarded as either enabling magic or dramatically strengthening it whenever they are alive. If the maesters are focused on creating a more orderly world, they’re less focused on understanding it. Further, and more importantly, when magic works, it discredits the authority of the maesters. Consider Maester Luwin, who repeatedly ignores good evidence of magic’s efficacy, despite having an overall good character. The natural skeptical attitude of many scientists does not pay off for the maesters as it does in our world. And so their skepticism makes them look petty and unimaginative, even the good maesters.

These three factors lower the likelihood that a robust, ongoing scientific culture will arise, and without it the critical innovations required for technological progress will not happen. Of course, science is not a sufficient condition for modern economic growth, but it is arguably a necessary one.

Importantly, the religions of Os do not seem generally hostile to commercial activity, though they also do not seem to support or celebrate it. Merchants have influence, but they are not highly regarded. With the big exception of the Iron Bank of Braavos and some other lesser financial institutions, most monetary focus is placed on aristocratic households and the revenues they collect. So while there is little to encourage a commercial culture, there is little to stop it either. And in some great cities, especially Qarth, the merchants have great economic and political power, so with adequate scientific advance, the investment necessary to accumulate capital would arguably materialize. So I don’t think the Great Stagnation in Westeros is on the commercial side.

If you’ve ready Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, you know that one of his prescriptions to get our own economy growing faster is to improve the social standing of scientists. Tyler may not be right about our own culture (though I think he is), but he certainly seems to be right about Westeros: they need a more credible, respectable scientific community to get out of their own great stagnation.

Perhaps for this reason, the best course for the smallfolk is for the dragons to die, as this will considerably constrain the power of magic, if not eliminate it. I know, I know, dragons are awesome, but they’re also the Os equivalent of nuclear weapons, which allowed the Valyrian Freehold to maintain a brutal slave culture for thousands of years. The Targaryens (one of three surviving Valyrian families) rejected slavery, with the rest of Westeros, so perhaps a new dragonocracy wouldn’t be so bad, but the fact that the dragons keep the window of magic open, or at least widen it, they would prove a continual barrier to economic advancement.

UPDATE: Ryan M raises an additional argument in the comments that I had not seen. Basically, one impetus for innovation is to increase military power. But given the magical power derived from dragons (dragons, dragonriders and wildfire, and potentially the ability to create advanced steel), the need for military innovation among the power elites was significantly weakened. Any of these technologies would allow the one who holds the technology to become the dominant power. If you have all of these powers, then you have little incentive to innovate beyond this. You can already extract all the economic rents you wants from your vassals and subjects.

Drogon is cool.

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Last week Adam Gurri (as a guest contributor) and Steve Horwitz posted rebuttals to my recent post on parental licensing. I appreciate the serious attention Adam and Steve gave this. Here I give 3 responses, 2 aimed primarily at Adam and 1 primarily at Steve. I also have a response to Adam’s worries about “first principles” libertarianism, but since that is a more general issue, I’ll leave it for a future post. Here I want to take issue with Adam’s shock at my proposal and address his and Steve’s concerns about the practical matters regarding implementing a parental licensing policy.

1. Attacking the family?

Adam found my proposal “quite shocking” because “The family is the oldest, most durable institution that humanity has. It is also the most sacred; rare is the picture of the good life that does not include the bonds of family.” I don’t think Adam is being at all disingenuous here, but I nonetheless find this rather puzzling since I did not attack the family at all—indeed, I think the family in a world with a parental licensing system would be as important as ever.

How can I say I did not attack the family when I would demand “that all parents justify their merit [as parents] to a central political body up front” in order to be able to raise children? To start, its important to note that if parental licensing were implemented, most people—given recent stats, I would think around 97%—would be able to raise their biological offspring.  A few would not. Most biological families would be left in tact.

But, Adam would likely say, “I didn’t mean to say you were attacking specific families; I meant you were attacking the institution of family.” But this is wrong—I am not attacking that institution. If I am attacking anything, I am attacking an unlimited natural right to raise one’s biological offspring.  (A right that has not, to my knowledge, been well-defended.)

Putting the point differently, I think a central problem in Adam’s thinking is made clear when, in the comment section, he agrees with “Egalitarian” that “there have been many different forms of the family” but responds “there’s limits to that variation. The basic form of having parents raise their own kids is as close to universal as these things get.”  The problem is that he thinks that when people biologically cause kids to come into existence, those kids are “theirs”–i.e., he assumes propertarianism or something like it. He has not offered any defense of such a view; he has offered no positive defense at all of the claim that people have a right to raise their biological offspring. As importantly, he has offered no defense of the claim that a family must (conceptually) be people raising their biological offspring. If that is not the case, though, I have not attacked the family as an institution at all. The sort of parental licensing program I suggested would help create families since adoptive families are families.

In the sort of parental licensing scheme I would favor, a few people would not be allowed to raise their biological offspring. Any children born to them would be put up for adoption and quickly adopted. (There are always waiting lists to adopt newborns in our system, wherein it is also very expensive; I see no reason to think the demand would decrease in a system with parental licensing.)  Those adopting the children would raise them “as their own” (whatever that means). They would be a family. As sacred as any other. In a system with parental licensing done right, I should add, families would have better claim to being “sacred” since fewer families would include child-abusers.

2. The plausibility and administration of parental licensing

The main criticism Adam and Steve advance against parental licensing doesn’t strike me as very different from what a number of others said in the comments on my post; its really a worry about practical issues of administering the program.

I share the general worry—and will say more about it below.  But Adam’s formulation of the worry seems to misunderstand the proposal. Say that Adam is right that my test “boils down to means, competency, and stress-resilience” and that these “are inseparable from ethics.” It’s not clear to me how anything problematic follows from this. Adam worries that cases will be left to “the ethical judgment of the evaluators.” But this would be no more of an issue here than it is for licensing drivers.  Adam may be thinking that I intend for something like “potential parent evaluators” to be grilling the candidates. I don’t—not even in the way that one takes a drive with an evaluator when getting a drivers license. I think of it more like taking the written exam for a driver’s license.

Would my proposal well instantiated result in “an ethical monoculture,” as Adam thinks? (I’ll talk about it not being well instantiated below.) Perhaps this depends on what one means by a “culture.” If I could push a magic button that would end all harm everywhere, I would. If the resulting world (assuming its logically possible) would be a monoculture because there would be no harm in any group anywhere, so be it. Different groups would still vary from others in significant ways. Some would be God-worshippers, some not. Some would be money-worshippers, some not. Some would be autonomy-worshippers, some not. Etc. What we would have would be a genuine liberal archipelago with no loss of “ground level knowledge” or positive externalities. There would be a loss, of course—a loss of harmed people (people with interests wrongfully setback).  If the magic button were only able to end all harms to children (without creating more harms to others), I would still push it. The loss there would be a loss of harm to children and the crime abused children grow up to commit.  Well worth losing.

Finally, Adam worries that “there are no governments on Earth which deal humanely with children that are in their care. And if there are such governments, they certainly are not the federal government of the United States, nor any of our state or local governments.” I don’t know if the universal claim is true, but the rest seems right. In responding to the question “Would this be state or federal licensing?” (see my response #8 in the comments of my last post), I wrote that I was not sure. I may not have fully grasped the question, before, but I did note, parenthetically that “in my ideal, we’d probably not have states in the American sense of the word.”  When I say I would be happy with a liberal archipelago, I mean that I would be happy with a system wherein people everywhere were protected from harms but allowed to live their lives as they see fit, communally or not, so long as they caused no harm (wrongful setback of interests) to others. Perhaps one day I will have a full theory of good government that goes beyond “protects all from harm and rectifies what harm happens.” For now, though, I don’t claim to have such—I am still preoccupied with determining the proper limits of government power. That said, it should be obvious that my ideal is not just taking the US Federal Government or any other existing government, removing bad elements and adding parental licensing.   Nor do I suppose we should assume the “talent pool” for those in my ideal government come from currently existing governments.  (To foreshadow a future post: I am not limiting myself to thinking about these things as from within the “civil and political relations that [have] grown” in this world. If that means I won’t be able “to affect change of human systems … as a participant,” so be it. As I’ve told my students, I chose to teach the topics I do not because I can change the world by myself, but because I hope they will–or will help.)

3. Parenting Failure and Government Failure, etc.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of my view will be rearing its head now: I am engaging in pie-in-the-sky reasoning, ignoring the empirical facts of our existence. So, I turn to Steve’s post. Steve seems to me far more generous in reading my proposal than Adam—and more sympathetic. Still, I think Steve is wrong if he thinks I don’t understand that “The problem is that real-world political actors have incentives that lead them to act in ways other than those that philosophers and economists think they should.” Indeed, in his 2010, LaFollette notes that he was worried about this in his 1980, but is more worried now given that he has seen the “ways that an administration can take a sensible goal (controlling terrorism) and pervert it” (12). I doubt any serious thinker would disagree. So, yes this is a problem.

If there were nothing more to say, I would surrender the debate. Unfortunately, I have too much first hand knowledge of how our current system has failed. Its for that reason that I am willing to say that we should perhaps try something new—even though we can’t know that it will be well instantiated.  And that, in turn, is why I am happy to admit that some sort of test or phasing-in would be warranted—it would help alert us to any worsening that would occur so that we could alter or stop the project.

So I agree with Steve that “we have to ask the important question of ‘as compared to what?’ when we see evidence of parenting failure.” The comparison, though, has to be fair and I am not sure Steve is being fair to my (LaFollette’s) proposal when he worries that it will result in more children being put in foster care, which causes them psychological difficulties. I did not suggest they should go to foster care.  Indeed, I clearly indicated a desire to reduce the current foster care system.  Moreover, its not clear why we should think there would be negative psychological effects on a 1 week or 1 month old baby who is put into a home with loving and competent adoptive parents.  And that is what I am proposing for the few children whose biological parents fail to get a parental license.  Taking an older child from parents that have been raising it—lovingly or not—would likely cause psychological damage, but that is something the parental licensing proposal I advocated avoids, unlike our current system.

Steve thinks we would do better to “work to help parents become better” using private associations like churches, neighborhood associations, and extended families. I wish I could be as optimistic about this possibility as he is, but I am not. Michael McFall points to its problems in his book Licensing Parents. As he points out, “Most child maltreatment is not due to a lack of education. If a parent does not know that it is wrong to abuse or neglect his child before taking a parenting class, then we should pause to consider how effective such a class would be” (113; as he also points out, “those most at risk to maltreat children are least likely to attend parenting classes”). To this, I would only add that there are already many private associations that do the sort of work Steve is suggesting. But child abuse and neglect continue. Steve may think this can change if such private institutions are given more support or if their services are made mandatory. I would have to hear more about such proposals before I could endorse them; for now, I remain skeptical about how much good they can do.

For similar reasons, I am skeptical of Steve’s claim that “those closest to the family are in the best position to understand the problems at hand, imagine an effective solution,” and fix it. In many cases where there is child abuse, the immediate family is surrounded by dysfunction and those closest to the family are simply unlikely to be of any help—and those who could be of such help are likely to be rebuffed.

I should note that whether parental licensing is politically feasible in our society is an empirical question and that I that I do not think we are likely to get it any time soon. That doesn’t mean I think we shouldn’t have it, but it does mean I should give thought to the next question: “OK, we need to find a way to protect children from harm and parental licensing may be off the table for political reasons, so what do we do?” But I am a philosopher and I am interested, first and foremost, in figuring out what the ideal is. Here, its clear, the ideal requires children not be significantly harmed (i.e., not have their important interests wrongfully setback). I think parental licensing would help in that regard. And despite the protests, we actually already have tests that seem to work; Claudia Pap Mangel discusses the “Child Abuse Potential Inventory” and the “Family Stress Checklist” in her “Licensing Parents: How Feasible?” (Family Law Quarterly, 22.1).  Interestingly, she also provides evidence that our court system has had rulings that amount to “licensing parents on a case-by-case basis” and concludes that parental licensing “would be more objective, expeditious, and less costly” than our current system. So, to borrow from Matt’s thinking about a BIG, I may end up arguing that parental licensing, “even if it is not ideal from a libertarian perspective, is significantly better on libertarian grounds than our current” child-welfare system state, and maybe even “has a much higher likelihood of being achieved in a world in which most people reject libertarian views.”

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Prof. Zwolinski makes an interesting argument in favor of “marginal libertarianism” here.

I am sympathetic, but I think there is a better way to make the distinction, one that is both more accurate and more practically useful.  This is destinationism vs. directionalism.  My “directionalism” matches up with Matt’s “marginalism,” but it’s better.  Marginalism means we are only trying for small changes.  Directionalism means that we may have to settle for small changes, but large moves should be tried when we see a chance.

Here is I argued this point in my piece on Basic Income:

There are two main paths to deriving libertarian policy implications: destinationism and directionalism. The destinationist starts with two inviolable moral and ethical precepts that describe the ultimate libertarian destination, or ideal society:

(a) Full self-ownership, with unrestricted rights to control and alienate both one’s own body and the products of one’s labor.
(b) An absolute bar on the initiation of force, even if such force would have net social benefits in consequentialist terms.

The destinationist libertarian then uses these constraints as restrictions on the form and function of the state in the ideal, ultimate sense. No violations are tolerated.

The directionalist asserts that any move that increases self-ownership, even marginally, and harms no one is an improvement and should be supported by the libertarian. This is true even if, from a destinationist perspective, the policy is not truly libertarian.

One form of this approach is “weak Pareto”: Any policy that increases the liberty and welfare of one or more individuals, while making exactly zero individuals less free or less well off, is an improvement on the status quo. Any policy that increases the liberty and welfare of one or more individuals, while making exactly zero individuals less free or less well off, is an improvement on the status quo. If most people are indifferent, and a few are better off, moving from the status quo to a new policy is justified for the directionalist. The directionalist, if presented with several alternatives, would want to choose that alternative that enhances liberty and welfare the most.

Destinationists identify ideal policies, using ideal theory. Directionalist libertarians identify a path that leads from the status quo toward ideal policies, using pragmatic and consequentialist considerations. For the destinationist, of course, anything other than the ideal outcome is an unacceptable compromise, because sanctioning a new but nonideal status quo implies complicity.

So, Matt and I agree on what not to do:  The destinationist who requires full ideological purity or nothing lives in a world where policy irrelevance is a sign of virtue.  I’ve had quite enough of that kind of virtue.  The question is what to do instead.  The notion of directional activism, with a final goal in mind and trying to make as large a move that way is possible, is easier to get people energized around.  “Matt the Fabian Libertarian” would have us giving teas and being happy that one small town in Kansas privatized its garbage service.  I think we can do more.

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