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Avast, me hearties, September 19th is International Talk (and Blog!) like a Pirate Day. So start rolling your arrrs! Key to the whole thing, those arrrs, because those pirates mean business.

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In the venerable Journal of Political Economy, Peter T. Leeson has staked himself out a spell-binding, yarn-twisting, plank-walking bit of analysis on the problem of how a passel of cutthroats could pillage and plunder and maintain cohesion and order while doing so.  Why should, in short, a gang of sea-jackals not just rip each other’s throats out? The same question can, and has, been asked of other violent criminal enterprises, but the classical piracy of the late 17th and early 18th centuries has some notable and unusual characteristics.

The multinational and multiracial pirate crews of these ships were often made up of sailors who had abandoned the merchant marine. Merchant ships were usually hellholes for sailors, who were under the complete control of their captains. On pirate ships, in contrast, the captain was another pirate, elected to the post. He had absolute command in battle, but much less so at other times.

Indeed, pirate organization was something like a bicameral legislature, since crews also elected quartermasters, who distributed provisions, divided prizes, and administered discipline, things normally the easily exploitable purview of merchant captains.

Leeson argues this form of checks and balances predated all similar land-based divided government models. There’s no evidence that pirate organization inspired things like the U.S. Constitution, but it’s a very suggestive parallel: Pirate crews also had written constitutions, “articles of agreement,” which usually included provisions of insurance for those wounded in battle (“for the loss of a right arm, 600 pieces of eight or six slaves”).  Even anarchy, after all, requires agreement.

So why wasn’t every sailor a pirate? For starters, piracy was a hanging offense, and navies, especially the British, ruthlessly suppressed the practice. Also, this democratic, progressive paradise was predicated on murder, rape, slavery, and theft.  Not everyone’s measure of grog: those scurvy dogs really were scurvy dogs.

One quibble. Leeson’s obviously a landlubber. It’s not “arrgh,” an exclamation of dissatisfaction or pain, but “arrr!” an affirmation, that belongs in his punning title.

This blog, you won’t be surprised to learn, has been rated Arrr!



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Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 115, No. 6 (December 2007), pp. 1049-1094
The University of Chicago Press