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Game of Thrones and the Politics of Fantasy

April 18, 2014
Game_of_Thrones_title_cardThe internet is filled with talk of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. This is welcome news, as Game of Thrones probably offers economists more teachable moments than any show currently on the air (even House of Cards). Fans are probably familiar with its economic themes and strongly critical view of government, which have attracted the attention of many libertarians, including yours truly. But the show’s “politics without romance” approach has been catching on in other circles as well, and (shameless self-promotion) my own economic take has been featured by CNBC and NASDAQ.com. But instead of using this post to explore themes from the show, I want to talk more generally about why I think it’s so effective in portraying the devastating reality of war, power, and government. The secret, in my opinion, is the fantasy setting. While it might seem counter-intuitive that an elaborate fictional world with so much supernatural activity could actually describe the real world, Game of Thrones works well because it seems so removed from our own experience. There are many ways we could think about this, so I'll stick to just a couple. First, fantasy worlds give us a place for our ideas to play. Maybe if we can’t yet make the real world more to our liking, we can create a fictional world to act as a kind of thought experiment in which to develop our ideas and share them. The possibility to create new worlds is one reason sci-fi and fantasy have long been home to ideas about liberty. But I think there’s more to it than that. Fantasy can also strip away irrelevant and misleading details of the real world that cloud our thinking. C.S. Lewis captures this idea perfectly in a 1956 essay:
The Fantastic… if it is used well by the author and meets the right reader, has the [following] power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.
I especially like the idea of being both general and concrete, which sounds a lot like a description of economic theory. What Lewis is getting at is that fantasy, because it is has this general character, can express ideas more clearly than, for example, discussions of real-world politics. The “irrelevancies” of the real world sometimes prevent us from developing a consistent and coherent way of thinking, especially when it comes to economics. But because a show like Game of Thrones doesn’t frame its economic and social ideas in terms of contemporary politics or the language of democratic government, it conveys those ideas free of the jargon, clichés, euphemisms, and outright fictions that usually obscure good ideas. Mises stressed again and again that a free society is impossible without economic literacy. And that is one reason we should take note when a show like Game of Thrones highlights ideas consistent with sound economics. Perhaps ironically, the fantasy world can be an effective escape from economic fantasies.

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