I just finished the fifth volume of George R.R. Martin’s series, a Song of Ice and Fire. For those of you who haven’t read as far as I have and plan to (you should if you like fantasy/medieval history), you might want to stop reading now, as there will be some spoilers.
Two things that struck me about the Song of Ice and Fire series that seem relatively applicable to the world we live in today-the primacy of family as the preeminent political unit, and the ever-presence of realism in foreign relations.
Primacy of the Family
While there are kings in the boosk that rule groups outside of their family lands (usually by force or other ties of marriage), in general in the Song of Ice and Fire series the primary political unit is the family, and the primary loyalty of each character is to their family. Repeatedly, characters betray others in order to advance the interests of their own family (advancing one’s own interests is generally not seen as distinguishable from advancing the interests of your family). Of course, ultimately this sort of politics results in the atomization of society, since it’s very difficult to have cooperation at a larger unit than the family without constant fear of betrayal that leads to preemptive strikes by either side.
As a side effect of the lack of loyalty to any unit larger than the family, nearly all parties in a Song of Ice and Fire have to constantly be looking to maximize their own power. While alliances with other families may help them reach that goal temporarily, nearly all parties are ready to defect upon being offered a better option. Because the book is set in a time period very similar to the Middle Ages, nearly all the characters give at least lip-service to the notion of chivalry-ie, keeping your word, helping the least fortunate, sacrificing your interests to the greater good. But notably, the few characters who actually try to live up to this code-Robb and Ned Stark most notably-generally have things end badly for them because the other characters don’t live up to this code. There is no overriding ideal that unites the different characters in the series beyond loyalty to family and self-interest.
This brings home to me how fortunate we are in America to have a polity united around a basic set of ideals-“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Because the vast majority of American citizens hold to these beliefs, we can go about our business without attempting to overthrow even governments that we disagree with, confident that even the worst governments produced by the democratic process will not be so pernicious to require a violent solution.
The books also bring home the importance of institutions in channeling human instincts in a way that doesn’t require altruism in order to benefit society as a whole. David Brooks is good on this here. In a Song of Ice and Fire, there are compassionate characters and tender moments in which humans do good for each other. But those moments are the exception to the rule because the lack of rule of law and fear of preemptive strikes means that as a whole, cruelty and chaos rules. In order to create incentives for humans to act kindly towards each other on a regular basis, you need a rule of law (where people are punished for hurting others) and a market economy (where it is in your economic interest to try to satisfy others). These institutions don’t really exist in A Song of Ice and Fire, and no amount of individual human kindness can make up for them.
Likewise, individual human kindness can play an important role in many societies today that lack the rule of law-microfinance institutions et al. are still important-but given the fallen nature of humanity I think ultimately institutional change is crucial to societal change.