October 1, 2009

pirates in the new yorker

Caleb Crain (i.e. Steamboats are Ruining Everything) reviews Peter Leeson's new book on the economics of piracy and pirate life, The Invisible Hook:

Friendships and working relationships linked pirate society across ships. Most captains knew one another personally, and many hunted together for a spell. Through their shared culture, they refined shipboard democracy. The supreme power aboard a pirate ship was the common council, which Marcus Rediker calls a "floating town meeting." Whoever had sworn to the articles could vote. Captains were elected, and ate the same food as their men. Only when the ship was fighting or fleeing could a captain make decisions on his own, and he could be deposed if the crew thought him cowardly or his treatment of prisoners too cruel or too kind. In daily matters, his power was checked by that of another elected official, the quartermaster, who distributed food and booty and administered minor punishments.

In Leeson's opinion, there was a sound economic basis for all this democracy. Most businesses suffer from what economists call the "principal-agent problem": the owner doesn't work, and the workers, not being stakeholders, lack incentives; so a certain amount of surveillance and coercion is necessary to persuade Ishmael to hunt whales instead of spending all day in his hammock with Queequeg. Pirates, by contrast, having stolen the ships they sailed, were both principals and agents; they still needed a captain but, Leeson explains, "they didn't require autocratic captains because there were no absentee owners to align the crew's interests with." The insight suggests more than Leeson seems to want it to--does inequity always entail political repression?--and late in the book he backtracks, cautioning that the pirate example "doesn't mean democratic management makes sense for all firms," only that management style should be adjusted to the underlying ownership structure. But a certain kind of reader is likely to ignore the hedging, and note that the pirates, two centuries before Lenin, had seized the means of production.

It is also worth noting that the review introduces Leeson as "an economist who claims to have owned a pirate skull ring as a child and to have had supply-and-demand curves tattooed on his right biceps when he was seventeen". Crain has a bit more on his sources for the review (other than Leeson's book) at his site (which is -- in general -- an excellent read for the many reminders it offers that history is at least as interesting as any fiction), including this anecdote:

...Captain George Roberts, [who] describes having been seized near the Cape Verde Islands in 1722 in The Four Years' Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. "You Dog! You Son of a Bitch! you Speckled-Shirt Dog!" one of his captors curses him. Asked who he thinks his captors are, Roberts submissively answers that "I believed they were Gentlemen of Fortune belonging to the Sea," only to be told off once more: "You lie by God, we are Pirates, by God." Roberts tells a good yarn, so good that some have wondered whether it might be fiction, but I think it's too good for that. When, for example, one of the pirates maroons Roberts on the high seas in a boat with no sail and no provisions, the pirate bestows on Roberts, in parting, a musket with a small amount of powder, calling it a special gift. The gift puzzles Roberts. In fact, though Roberts never figures it out, a loaded gun was traditionally given by one pirate to another when he marooned him--so the marooned man could shoot himself instead of starving to death slowly. It would take a subtle novelist to resist writing the scene where it dawns on Roberts what the musket is for; it seems more likely to me that Roberts's experience and ignorance were both genuine.
Posted by eatingbark at October 1, 2009 1:51 PM
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