X-Posted from Tumblr: Why Can’t the Lannisters Buy Westeros?

punkrocknerdfighterasked:

lauren, i was just thinking about how much gold casterly rock actually has, and how they use that gold, and now im asking you this: how much power do they actually have? like if a lord or king of casterly rock decided to like. buy all of westeros and become the emperor of the continent, could he do that? they already own debts from the iron throne. could they like? buy kings’s landing? or the entire industry of westeros and become merchant kings? this sounds silly but like. it’s so much gold

joannalannisteranswered:

@racefortheironthrone estimated that Westeros has an annual GDI of 525 million gold, while I think the Lannisters have an annual income of approximately 6 million gold. The Lannisters’ annual income is a little more than 1% of Westerosi GDI per year. (For comparison, Rockefeller’s entire net worth – not his annual income, but his entire fortune – was 1.5%-2% of GDP.)

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Excellent question! My answer will come in two parts, relating to different ways to think about money.

The first has to do with the relationship of money to land in a feudal society. As I explained with regards to Littlefinger:

If you’re asking why he doesn’t have more land (other than the lands of Harrenhal, which are quite extensive if slightly cursed), it’s that Westeros doesn’t have a free market in land, wherein land becomes a fungible commodity that can be bought and sold at will and abstracted into derivatives and futures, etc.

Land in Westeros is distributed through feudal relationships that are traditional and customary in nature – fiefdoms are hereditary, taxation and rent levels are fixed, and tenancies are more likely to involve feudal obligations than pure cash rents.

Karl Polayni, in his masterwork Great Transformation, identified the transition from feudalism to capitalism as the creation of a free market in land, labor, and money where none had existed before: the feudal contracts that stretched from the king on high all the way down to the peasant on the manor had to be destroyed so that land could be bought and sold as a commodity; serfdom had to be abolished and the commons enclosed to first free the peasants from the land they were bound to and then drive them into the factories; and usury laws that had hampered lending money for profit needed to be abolished to allow the banking industry to flourish.

This hasn’t yet happened in Westeros, for the most part. The only mention that land can be bought comes from the extended Westerlands chapter, where at Ellyn Reyne’s “urging, Lord Tarbeck expanded his domain by buying the lands of the lesser lords and landed knights about him. . . and taking by force the holdings of those who refused to sell.” The canonicity of this event being in question, nevertheless the context suggests extra-legality, with cash payment being used to mask violent seizure.

So even if they wanted to, no I don’t think the Lannisters could buy Westeros. I’d also point out that it would never occur to them to do so; as I’ve said before, the Lannisters are aristocrats and have an aristocrat’s conception of money rather than a merchant’s conception of money. Gold becomes land by buying swords to take it, not by going to a market like some Pentoshi cheesemonger.

The second has to do with inflation, as @joannalannister suggested. As I wrote here, the size of the Westerosi economy itself acts as a limiter on House Lannister’s ability to spend its gold:

The danger of dumping 18 billion gold into the Westerosi economy is that you’d generate a wave of hyper-inflation so bad that you’d make the Spanish Price Revolution look like a mere stock market hiccup. While in the long run providing the liquidity necessary for Westeros-and indeed even Planetos-wide economic development, the short-term implications would be the destruction of the Westerlands economy, as skyrocketing inflation would destroy the value of our reserves, cause our goods to be non-competitive, and cause the price of food to soar faster than wages, leading to massive socio-economic conflict.

When the Kingdom of Spain conquered Mexico and Peru in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, they got their hands on the great silver mines of Zacatecas and Potosí, which produced $2.7 trillion in 2015 dollars. This vast tidal wave of precious metals, torn out of the ground by slaves, had the paradoxical effect of destroying Spain’s economy with inflation. Inflation meant that it was far cheaper to import raw materials and manufactured goods into Spain, rather than produce them at home, so manufacturing and even farming went into decline. Rather than invest in agriculture or commerce, the wealthy put their money into government debt instead so as to be repaid in silver.

And of course, the irony of all of this is that the Crown’s vast treasure hoard by its very vastness destroyed its value. Drunk on their own precious metals, the Kings of Spain tried to conquer all of Europe for Catholicism and the House of Hapsburg, and went bankrupt in the process. As I discuss here:

Phillip II of Spain, despite all the gold and silver of Mexico and Peru, went bankrupt four times (1557, 1560, 1575, and 1596), and historians suggest that his *personal* debts were equal to 60% of Spain’s GDP at the time..

It got so bad that during the Dutch Revolt, which lasted from 1568-1648 (if you want to know where all the money was going…), that Phillip II had to get his financing and supplies from the Dutch because no one else would lend him money to pay for his war against the Dutch. The Dutch bankers agreed to finance him at exorbitant rates of interest, and then turned around and used his own money to support the rebellion against the Spanish.

So the Lannisters have to tread lightly when it comes to their gold…

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5 thoughts on “X-Posted from Tumblr: Why Can’t the Lannisters Buy Westeros?

  1. Sean C. says:

    The only mention that land can be bought comes from the extended Westerlands chapter

    In his third ASOS chapter, Tyrion refers to the Westerlings having sold off or “lost” their best lands over the years.

    • Good catch. Still very strange by medieval standards, since freehold was extremely rare.

    • Bail o' Lies says:

      Which means they either: They lost the land to other lords who had the men and means to take and hold their land. Basically the lords to that were near the Westerling’s territory were able to send men in to take it and the Westerling were unable to respond in kind. Or they sold it to other lords to pay of their debt. Since they couldn’t afford to keep the land, better to sell it to a nearby lord then wait for them to take it. Then use that money to pay of their debts and maintain the lands they still possess.

      So this still isn’t capitalistic. it just the Westerlings were to poor and weak to hold their lands and lost it to stronger wealthier lords. So it still fits into the Lannister mindset of wealth=military might. So the Lannister are rich therefor strong, while the Westerling were poor therefor weak.

  2. Steven Xue says:

    Even if the Lannisters can’t simply purchase land right off the bat, they still do a lot of lending to houses who have lands and seats that I assume can be given up or seized if they fail to make payment on their loans. Surely there must be laws that would allow the Lannisters to expropriate the lands and seats of their debtors as collateral for large sums of money owed to them?

  3. jreinatl says:

    I’ll note here that the Lannisters’ basic strategy with King Robert looked a lot like a medieval version of a Leveraged Buyout.

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