Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pirates and democracy

Back in April, Rob Natelson wrote a tongue-in-cheek post arguing that Somali pirates were environmental activists and heroes who promoted social justice. I wrote in comments that there actually was some truth to the myths that romanticize piracy.

Evidence for my claim comes in a book by Peter T. Leeson, "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates." He notes that pirates were far better paid than commercial sailors, had more control over their working conditions and operated in a more democratic atmosphere. He writes:

Pirates ... were outlaws, with no recognized authorities to settle disputes. So they invented their own ways of doing business. Decades before the American Founders got their act together, pirates were drafting documents full of voting rights, juries, checks and balances, rules for property allocation, even methods for impeachment. The buccaneers may have been less concerned with natural rights than with survival and claiming their fair share of booty, but the end result feels surprisingly like the kind of self-governance we expect from enlightened modern republics.


Pirates' reputation for ruthless torture and murder arose in part because they tortured and murdered. But Leeson notes, "Portraying the freebooters in the worst possible light worked to the advantage of everyone concerned. For governments, crusading against the outlaws who robbed their merchants and treasury ships was a way to keep public opinion firmly on the side of the state. Practicing pirates, meanwhile, were happy to be depicted as violent and unpredictable outlaws, as this encouraged their prey to surrender and cooperate. In fact, the marauders went to great lengths to ensure that their reputation as heartless ship wreckers and torturers remained intact."

It's a long way from Blackbeard to Somali pirates, but some of the appeal of the profession remains the same.

2 comments:

Ken & Carol said...

It sounds to me as if all three of you have your tongues in your cheeks. That may be the only way we can avoid the modern unforgiveable sin: being judgmental.

Mark T said...

Natelson's post was typically insular - Democracy Now had reported that Somali waters were being used as a dumping ground for other countries since the place has no government and there is no way to enforce boundary waters or environmental rules.

As a consequence, the waters are terribly polluted and don't yield many fish anymore, and former fishermen have turned to piracy to make a living.

True? I don't know. Seems a bit simplistic but not so much so as to deserve Natelson's brushoff. His was a very dumb post.