Pirate Economics 101: A Q&A With Invisible Hook Author Peter Leeson
The crew of the Maersk Alabama, having survived an attack by pirates in Somalia last week, has returned home for a much-deserved rest. But with tensions ratcheting up between the U.S. and the rag-tag confederation of Somali pirates, it’s worth looking to the past for clues on how to tame the outlaw seas.
Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University (and an occasional Freakonomics guest blogger), offers a brisk and fascinating look at old-school piracy in his new book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Leeson agreed to sit down and answer some important piratical questions for us:
The Invisible Hook is more than just a clever title. How is it different from Adam Smith‘s invisible hand?
In Adam Smith, the idea is that each individual pursuing his own self-interest is led, as if by an invisible hand, to promote the interest of society. The idea of the invisible hook is that pirates, though they’re criminals, are still driven by their self-interest. So they were driven to build systems of government and social structures that allowed them to better pursue their criminal ends. They’re connected, but the big difference is that, for Adam Smith, self-interest results in cooperation that generates wealth and makes other people better off. For pirates, self-interest results in cooperation that destroys wealth by allowing pirates to plunder more effectively.
In the book, you write that pirates had set up their own early versions of constitutional democracy, complete with separation of powers, decades before the American Revolution. Was that only possible because they were outlaws, operating entirely outside the control of any government?
That’s right. The pirates of the 18th century set up quite a thoroughgoing system of democracy. The reason that the criminality is driving these structures is because they can’t rely on the state to provide those structures for them. So pirates, more than anyone else, needed to figure out some system of law and order to make it possible for them to remain together long enough to be successful at stealing.
So did these participatory, democratic systems give merchant sailors an incentive to join pirate crews, because it meant they were freer among pirates than on their own ships?
The sailors had more freedom and better pay as pirates than as merchantmen. But perhaps the most important thing was freedom from the arbitrariness of captains and the malicious abuses of power that merchant captains were known to inflict on their crews. In a pirate democracy, a crew could, and routinely did, depose their captain if he was abusing his power or was incompetent.
You write that pirates weren’t necessarily the bloodthirsty fiends we imagine them to have been. How does the invisible hook explain their behavior?
The basic idea is, once we recognize pirates as economic actors, businessmen really, it becomes clear as to why they wouldn’t want to brutalize everyone they overtook. In order to encourage merchantmen to surrender, they needed to communicate the idea that, if you surrender to us, you’ll be treated well. That’s the incentive pirates give for sailors to surrender peacefully. If they wantonly abused their prisoners, as they’re often portrayed as having done, that would have actually undermined the incentive of merchant crews to surrender, which would have caused pirates to incur greater costs. They would have had to battle it out more often, because the merchants would have expected to be tortured indiscriminately if they were captured.
So instead, what we often see in the historical record is pirates displaying quite remarkable feats of generosity. The other side of that, of course, is that if you resisted, they had to unleash, you know, a hellish fury on you. That’s where most of the stories of pirate atrocities come from. That’s not to say that no pirate ever indulged his sadistic impulses. But I speculate that the pirate population had no higher proportion of sadists than legitimate society did. And those sadists among the pirates tended to reserve their sadistic actions for times when it would profit them.
So they never made anyone walk the plank?
There was no walking the plank. There’s no historical foundation for that in 17th- or 18th-century piracy.
You write about piracy as a brand. It’s quite a successful one, having lasted for hundreds of years after the pirates themselves were exterminated. What was the key to that success?
There was a very particular type of reputation that pirates wanted to cultivate. It was a very delicate line to walk. They didn’t want to have a reputation for wanton brutality or complete madness. They wanted to be perceived as hair-trigger men, men on the edge, who if you pushed, if you resisted, they would snap and do something horrible to you. That way, the captives they took had an incentive to be very careful to comply with all of the pirates’ demands. At the same time, they wanted a reputation as being very brutal, as meting out these brutal, horrible tortures to captives who didn’t comply with their demands. Stories about those horrible tortures were relayed not only by word of mouth, but by early 18th-century newspapers. When a former prisoner was released, he would oftentimes go to the media and provide an account of his capture. So when colonials read these accounts in the media, that helped institutionalize the idea of pirates as these men on the edge. That worked marvelously for pirates. It was a form of advertising performed by legitimate members of society that again helped pirates reduce their costs.
What kinds of lessons can we draw from The Invisible Hook in dealing with modern pirates?
We have to recognize that pirates are rational economic actors and that piracy is an occupational choice. If we think of them as irrational, or as pursuing other ends, we’re liable to come up with solutions to the pirate problem that are ineffective. Since we know that pirates respond to costs and benefits, we should think of solutions that alter those costs and benefits to shape the incentives for pirates and to deter them from going into a life of piracy.