From where does the state get its power? In Game of Thrones, Varys asks such a question to Tyrion Lannister:

Varys: “Power is a curious thing, my lord. Are you fond of riddles?”

Tyrion: “Why? Am I about to hear one?”

Varys: “Three great men sit in a room, a king, a priest and the rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”

Tyrion: “Depends on the sellsword”

Varys: “Does it? He has neither the crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods”

Tyrion: “He’s has a sword, the power of life and death”

Varys: “But if it is the swordsman who rules, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?”

Tyrion: “I have decided I don’t like riddles”

Varys: “Power resides where men believe it resides, it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow”

Varys – and by extension, George R. R. Martin – is a wise man. He has gotten close to the origin of power without the aid of modern sociology. However, with modern tools we can greatly expand upon Varys’ answer of “power resides where men believe it resides”.

What does it mean to believe in power? Clearly simply claiming to believe in power isn’t enough, one must act on this belief for it to affect the world. Why wouldn’t it, as Tyrion says, “depend on the sellsword”? The answer is that the sellsword’s personal beliefs on power are immaterial. What matters is how the sellsword expects others to act. If the sellsword does not obey the man whom he expects other men with swords will obey, he would expect to become an outlaw. Power resides in what people expect others to obey.

We’ll assume the sellsword knows the loyalties of other armed men he’s likely to come into contact with. Then we’ll assume he has nothing to gain by changing only his own loyalty – even if he kills the current ruler he will later be struck down by angered subjects. Now extend these assumptions over everyone else in the kingdom, and you have what is known in game theory as a Nash equilibrium. Creating and exploiting Nash equilibria of obedience is the key to power.

Unfortunately everyone’s expectations are private information. They can tell us what they expect, but they might lie. An anarchist might say they aren’t going to pay their taxes, but most people will not believe them. Thus the only sure way to create expectations is to incentivize the sort of behaviors you wish others to expect. Would-be kings first need to create obedience in men of violence. As others begin to expect this obedience a Schelling point of who holds power is created, and the nation moves closer to a Nash equilibrium of obedience towards the king.

From this observation we can connect some dots:

Power struggles are caused by heterogeneous expectations of power over the same people and properties. In Westeros, this is exemplified by the struggle for the Iron Throne. Massive death, suffering and hardship is the cost of simply trying to change people’s expectations.

Also, state propaganda is not about making people believe states are good things, although that certainly helps. It is about convincing people that others will act as if states are legitimate, and thereby creating expectations of state power. De-legitimizing the state is not enough to destroy it; a town full of anarchists would still obey the state if they expected others to do so.

Finally, democracy creates expectations of electoral power. This is why democracies can reduce violent struggles for power: no one expects others to obey politicians in the same way a subject obeys a king; they expect others to obey the result of democratic processes. Democracy allows politicians to come in and out of power without requiring violent changes in political expectations. This phenomenon, which would have seemed crazy hundreds of years ago, is now commonplace.

Some expectations of power will reinforce themselves and thus be stable. Others won’t, and will be transient. Will something close to anarcho-capitalism will be stable, or will it degrade into tyranny? In this blog I hope to explore this question.