- The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates
Pirates have long fascinated readers, movie directors and their audiences, and thrill-seekers on amusement park rides. Pirates are once again the subject matter of diplomatic and foreign policy discussions. Their reemergence on the world stage has brought new attention to centuries-old problems and bolstered a steady stream of publications intended both for scholars and a wider audience. Pirates are handy ciphers, in our times no less than their own. In Peter Leeson's hands they metamorphose into "harbingers" (p. 179) of both the Founding Fathers and Gordon Gekko, the "greed is good" icon. Pirates are shoehorned into "rational choice" theory, although that theory is both ahistorical and essentialist. They are a vehicle for present-minded arguments in favor of unfettered capitalism and, implicitly, American exceptionalism.
Eighteenth-century pirates have their Marxist interpreters in Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, but now they have their capitalist [End Page 159] one in Peter Leeson (The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic ). Leeson boldly claims to add a hitherto missing dimension to our understanding of pirates: economics. This claim is made despite literary attention to pirates and accumulation of profits, historical attention to the costs and profits of piracy, and philosophical attention to Adam Smith and shipping and piracy, to name a few (Barbara Fuchs, "Faithless Empires: Pirates, Renegadoes, and the English Nation," English Literary History 67, no. 1 : 45-69; David Hebb, Piracy and the English Government, 1616-1642 ; Richard Unger, "Warships, Cargo Ships and Adam Smith: Trade and Government in the Eighteenth Century," Mariner's Mirror 92, no. 1 : 41-59). A quick perusal of Leeson's notes reveals that his secondary sources pertain more to modern development and the evils of government intervention than to the vast scholarship on piracy and the economic history of the eighteenth century. Leeson does add current economic theories about "rational choice" (p. 5) to show that pirates were self-interested, profit-maximizing, rational, and responsive to incentives. They experimented with "branding" like a "Fortune 500 company" (p. 6) and channeled the guiding principles of United States federalism avant la lettre. To Rediker and Linebaugh, pirates were the proletarian heroes of a dialectical struggle; to Leeson, they are the antiheroic models of modern management styles.
Leeson mentions ancient Athens and medieval Europe, but his views of "pirate democracy" depend on sensational published accounts of pirate life and are formed by an Americentric persepctive. "Remarkably" pirates avoided floundering in violence and disorganization "by invoking [ James] Madison's solution to the paradox of power—nearly one hundred years before he suggested it" (p. 29). Leeson attests to pirate prescience of Madison's ideals more than once. No doubt what the editor of the American Historical Review calls the "Founders Chic" audience will eat up these connections to Madison and federalism (vol. 114, no. 3 : xiv). In reality, notions of the "publick Good" (p. 30) predate these golden-age pirates and Madison, too. Some European political theory might have made the author blush to write, "To look at it, one could easily believe America's Founding Fathers used the pirates' system of democratic checks and balances in framing the United States government" (p. 34).
A desire for profits drives all pirate actions—not romantic ideas about honor or revolutionary ones about egalitarianism celebrated by Rediker and Linebaugh. Parallels with modern-day condo associations and college dormitories make pirates like modern sophisticates, circumventing "serious negative externality threats" (p. 54). The convoluted [End Page 160] language of theory sometimes makes a simple idea seem complicated. Or, when Leeson refers to "what economists call 'common knowledge' " (p. 78) one wonders what the rest of us call the same thing. Do we really need an economic model to tell us that pirates might wish for their prey's speedy surrender over a fight? Of course, a psychologist might have a nifty model of the death-wish-harboring pirate who would sooner lose...