Pirate Democracy

I just finished a fun book that I want to recommend. It’s “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” by Peter T. Leeson. The author explores the Golden Age of Piracy (circa 1720) and shows how pirates overcame collective action problems. While there are many parts that are of interest to lawyers (for example, the pirate use of trademarks — the Jolly Roger — and crude advertising to enhance their brand of terror and encourage capitulation), the issue that I want to focus on is pirate governance.

Leeson points out that pirates needed to create a legitimate authority amongst themselves because the cost of having unhappy crew members was high. Even one disgruntled pirate could desert and expose the ship to the authorities. (And the penalty for piracy was death). So how did pirate gangs handle this?

First, pirate ships wrote up constitutions (pirate codes) that set forth the rules governing the ship, including punishments for certain offenses and the distribution of loot. Moreover, these codes required unanimous approval to go into effect, which ensured that everyone on the crew “bought into” the rules.

Second, pirate crews elected their captains and officers by majority vote. And these officers could be deposed by a “no confidence” vote at any time. This was an effective enforcement mechanism for the rules set forth in the ship constitution.

Third, pirates divided power between the captain (who was in charge of the ship’s navigation and tactics in battle) and the quartermaster (who was in charge of the ship’s internal operations). This was a formal or constitutional separation that was designed to prevent captain abuse, which was a common problem on merchant ships, by creating checks and balances.

There are lots of other nuggets like this in Leeson’s book. You should check it out.

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10 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    Leeson’s book arrived in my inbox today. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the preview of upcoming attractions.

    BTW, Leeson has a good website that includes links to a bunch of his published articles on pirates as well.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for the recommendation and the interesting points. Maybe it’s unfair to judge based on the acknowledged focus of your comment, but it’s striking that the book’s author characterizes these issues as economic (see the title), when they are in fact political. In the Anglophone world, political concepts have been subsumed to economic ones. No more than 30-35 years ago (and probably more recently, too, since the world didn’t change overnight when Reagan was elected), “collective action” would also have connoted politics for most people. In Continental Europe, it still does.

  3. A.J. says:

    A.J.–Perhaps your dichotomy between economics and politics is a false one.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    A.J. bis, thanks for your comment. Let me first correct myself about “collective action”: I subsequently found that this phrase was used by economist Mancur Olson in the 1960s. But my error more supports my point than otherwise: as a Baby Boomer who was involved in political campaigns and demonstrations from the late 1960s, I can attest that the plain sense meaning of “collective action” through the 1970s was not at all what it was or is in Anglo-Saxon academic economics. “Collective action” becomes remarkable or “problematic” only because of neoclassical economics’ conception of people as individual atoms.

    As for the dichotomy being false, yep, there’s a sense in which I do agree with that. But that’s because all theories of economics are inherently political, not the other way around. (I’d be happy to entertain a counterexample.) So the reference to a “hidden economics” is an assertion of that dichotomy, rather than something new I’m importing into the discussion.

    But that’s not to say that the dichotomy isn’t useful in some ways. The microeconomics of, say, you buying a head of lettuce (which is supposedly the same microeconomics of everything else, too) doesn’t typically treat of power relations. But power relations are the subject of politics. They’re also involved in the discussion of pirates above. Whence my comment.

  5. JP says:

    A.J. Sutter–I mistakenly posted as “A.J.” above; I apologize. I’m not sure what happened.

    There are various ways of arranging power structures to overcome collective action problems. Voluntary arrangements and associations–corporate governance–are political in an Aristotelian sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to refer to them as such under modern usage.

    Politics is used primarily to refer to coercive arrangements for overcoming collective action problems; it is the realm of the leviathan. (Of course, if you are taking the view that collective action problems can only be solved coercively–and as a result collective obligations should generally trump individual rights–then the terminology of politics-as-power-relations ought to suffice to describe all social arrangements.)

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    JP, thanks for unmasking yourself. Again, there’s a (very narrow) sense in which I agree with you. There’s an historical link between the concept of the state as “leviathan” and the assimilative trend of which I spoke. Jean-Claude Michéa expands on this eloquently in a book scheduled to appear in English this summer. He shows that economic and political liberalism are two sides of the same coin, and, like Hobbes’s worldview, grew out of the traumatic religious wars of the 17th Century. In this context, the “modern” sense of politics is Western market liberalism.

    More generally,though I think your characterization is too restrictive, and too determined by the Anglo-Saxon trend of recent decades to assimilate all social science to economics. For example, when you frame politics in terms of “collective action” in this discussion, it’s not clear what you mean. If you mean it in the economistic, Olson sense, then we’re talking past each other; I’ve already mentioned why I don’t think economics is necessarily anterior to politics. If you mean it in its broader sense, then I think you’re mistaken. In its plain meaning, “politics” need not involve states or coercion at all. Think of some of its colloquial usages: “academic politics”, “corporate politics,” “sexual politics” etc. If you’ve ever served on a committee, there are politics there, even among peers. The most basic defnition of politics is simply the process of collective decision-making. That the study of politics includes the study of coercive relationships doesn’t mean that politics as an activity (or even as an academic discipline) is limited to such relationships. Related point: when you say that ‘politics’ “is used” in a certain sense, it’s not clear by whom; if you mean by academics, that’s hardly dispositive.

    (Apropos of a more academic usage, the French anthroplogist Pierre Clastres has described societies in which there isn’t any state at all, but that still have politics. For an imaginative application of his observations to a Western politics, see the essays by Raphael Glucksmann in « Mai 68 expliqué à Nicolas Sarkozy » (2008).)

    Even when a state is involved, an aspect of politics is collective organization among the citizens or subjects of the state: e.g., citizens banding together voluntarily to form an interest group to protest, or advocate, legislation. It’s very clever of you to call this “corporate governance,” since “corporate” is another ambiguous term. But politics isn’t just for capitalists, and voluntary associations aren’t just for antiquity. Voluntary and cooperative associations are common in many societies, including in rural Japan.

    BTW, the fact that the pirates stipulated punishments for the crew and sanctions against the captain and officers sure sounds to me like there are elements of coercion; so that case would fit even your characterization of ‘politics’.

  7. JP says:

    The most basic definition of politics is simply the process of collective decision-making. This is what I meant by the Aristotelian sense of the word, though this was probably a poor choice on my part (I was thinking of his examination of the origin of politics; the consideration of interpersonal relationships).

    I think we disagree as to the common meaning of the word politics. Used alone, in modern American English, politics refers to government. The broader usage is by no means archaic, but as your examples show, will always require a qualifier (or at least an appropriate context).

    With regard to corporate governance, I meant it broadly to refer to the organization of any voluntary association: a for-profit corporation, a church, a chess club, a farming cooperative. Such organization is political, because it involves interpersonal relationships and social structuring. It is also economic, though, because the organizations are the result of attempts to maximize individual utility. I don’t think there is a distinction between a broad meaning of politics and a broad meaning of economics, which is why I suggested your dichotomy was false. I do think there is a distinction as the terms are colloquially used, which is why I think Leeson’s title is appropriate. (If I invite a [non-academic] friend to have coffee and talk politics, she will be prepared for a discussion of campaigning, elections, and government; not interpersonal relationships generally.)

    I do think there is a real distinction between organizations based on actual consent, such as a a farming cooperative or the pirate ship described in the post, and organizations based on the fiction of implied consent (i.e., governments).

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    “Used alone, in modern American English, politics refers to government.” — You might be right, but that just goes to show the generational, and cultural, difference I was referring to. If this is really the usual US meaning today, that’s a far cry from what it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when it included grass-roots organization for change, even in the absence of any elections etc. E.g., I grew up 3,000 miles away from Cesar Chavez, but we organized strikes and grape boycotts at our suburban supermarkets (targets were private growers and distributors, not government) to support the farm workers. The theme was justice & civil rights, not economics; at the time, the strike was perceived as political (and the UFW’s “¡Viva la huelga!” buttons bore a photo of the armed Emiliano Zapata, which was rather exotic for Long Island). I choose this example as “purer” than the Vietnam War protests, which were directed against government; but I could also mention the student riots in ’68 at Columbia University and elsewhere, and the first Earth Day events. In most parts of Europe, “politics” is still like this.

    I understood your more general meaning regarding “corporate governance”. The term is an even more recent phenomenon, probably not entering into common parlance until the 1990s. Its connotation, at least, is one that reflects how joint-stock corporations have become the protoype voluntary association in our culture. Bringing this back to pirates, my point is that considering this to be an economic phenomenon is an anachronism, not the way it would have been regarded until the late 20th Century.

    (I just now stepped away from my keyboard to look at some dictionary definitions of politics, which I’ll discuss in a separate comment.)

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    I checked some dictionary and Wikipedia definitions of politics. Some support JP’s prioritization of matters pertaining to “the Leviathan,” but the differences and nuances are interesting. Some main points of this long digression, if you don’t want to read the whole thing:

    @ English dictionaries tend to have broader defintions of “politics” than in dictionaries in other Western languages I checked (including German, Italian, French, Spanish) — this is contrary to my expectation, but may say something sociological about the authoritarian nature of expertise (since dictionaries are written by experts)

    @ Other than in German and Italian, the dictionaries refer to politics as relating to “society”, not just to a State (JP’s “Leviathan”)

    @ Wikipedia entries in 4 of the 5 languages — including English, but except Spanish — favor very expansive definitions of politics that go way beyond matters pertaining to government. Again, to my surprise (and perhaps JP’s as well), the English definition is by far the broadest.

    I don’t dispute JP’s sincerity in his point of view about what “politics” means. But the fact that his defintion is so limited suggests a radical, and uniquely American, narrowing of the understanding of what politics is. I submit that this reflects a relatively recent subsuming of much of the political into economics, in American thinking.

    OK, now to the evidence (my apologies for allowing the pirates to drift here a while):


    @ American Heritage Dictionary 3d (1996): 6 definitions, of which the first 5 seem to refer to government; only at the sixth do we find “The often internally conflicting relationships among people in a society.”

    @ New Shorter OED (1993): “1. a treatise on political science, spec. the one written by Aristotle. LME [Late medieval period] {reference to “political science,” a 19th Century term, seems an unfortunate anachronism here – AJS} 2. the art or science of government … E16 [i.e., early 16th Cent.] …3a Activites concerned with the acquisition or exercise of status; management or control of private affairs within an organization, a family, etc. M17. b The ideas, principles, or commitments, of an individual or an organization, in political life; the oprganizational process or principle according to which decisions are made affecting authority, status, etc. M18.” — the point here being that the usage I suggest (3a) dates back almost 400 years. BTW, the NSOED includes only definitions that were in current use at the time of the edition, not obsolete ones as in the original OED.

    @ New Oxford American Dictionary (2005): “[1.] the activites associated with the governance of a country or other area, esp. the debate or conflict among individuals having or hoping to achieve power [2. – relates to “government] [3.] the academic study of government and the state. [4.] activities within an organization that are aimed at improving someone’s status or position and are typically considered to be devios or divisive”

    @ Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch (2000): Politik: #1 “alle Maßnahmen zur Führung eines Staates hinsichtlich seiner inneren Verwaltung [und] seines Verhältnisses zu anderen Staaten” (all measures for leading a State, in respect of its internal administration and its relations to other States) #2 “berechendes Verhalten” (calculating behavior) (NB: this is not an unabridged dictionary)

    @ lo Zingarelli 2001: politica: #1 “Scienza e arte di governare lo Stato” (“Science and art of governing the State”), #2 “Modo di governare” (method of governing), #3 “(est[ensione]) Atteggiamento, condotta mantenuta in vista del raggiungimento di determinati fini” ((extended:) attitude, conduct maintained for the purpose of accomplishing specific goals); but see Italian Wikipedia below.

    @ Le Petit Robert (2000): politique n.f.: #1 “Arte et pratique du gouvernement des sociétés humaines (État, nation)” (art and practice of governing human societies (State, nation)). #2 “Manière de gouverner un État … ou de mener les relations avec les autres États” (manner of goevrning a state or of conducting relationships with other States) #3 “Ensemble des affaires publiques” (public affairs generally)

    @ Vox Diccionario de uso del español de América y España (2004): política: 1. “Ciencia que trata del gobierno y la organización de las sociedades humanas, especialmente de los estados” (science of the governing and organization of human societies, especially states) 2. “Actividad de los que gobiernan o aspiran a gobernar los asuntos que afectan a la sociedad o a un pais” (activity of those who govern or who hope to govern the affairs that affet a society or a country) 3. “Conjunto de los procedimientos y medidas que se adoptan para dirigir los asuntos que afectan a la sociedad o tienen relación con ella” (ensemble of the procedures and measures adopted for directing the affairs that {##4. & 5 affect society or that are related to it) more like Wahrig #2] — note here the emphasis on society as distingushed from the state.

    Given that politics is much more of a participatory sport in Europe than the US, I was surprised to find that English had the broadest definitions. However, the distinctions between states and societies, especially in the French and Spanish definitions, was striking.


    Perhaps Wikipedia can be a better index of contemporary descriptive, as distinguished from prescriptive, usage. Here, the different definitions of “politics” and its equivalents are generally much less Statist:

    @ English:Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. The term is generally applied to behaviour within civil governments, but politics has been observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.” (From the spelling, this appears to be a UK/European point of view.)

    @ Spanish: “La política, del griego πολιτικος … es la actividad humana tendente a gobernar o dirigir la acción del estado en beneficio de la sociedad.” (Politics … is the human activity relating to governing or directing the actions of the state for the benefit of society.) — for once, the lexicographers are less statist than the Wiki contributors.

    @ German: Check out the extremely nuanced matrix of definitions of politics from the standpoints of power, State, leadership, hierarchy, oder, peace, freedom, democracy, consent, conflict, struggle (Kampf), and class struggle.

    @ French: “La politique au sens plus large concerne donc la structure et le fonctionnement (méthodique, théorique et pratique) d’une communauté, d’une société, d’un groupe social. La politique concerne les actions, l’équilibre, le développement interne ou externe de cette société, ses rapports internes et ses rapports à d’autres ensembles. La politique est donc principalement ce qui a trait au collectif, à une somme d’individualités et/ou de multiplicités. C’est dans cette optique que les études politiques ou la science politique s’élargissent à tous les domaines d’une société (économie, droit, sociologie, et cetera)” (Politics in the broader sense concerns the structure and functioning … of a community, of a society, of a social group. Politics concerns the actions, the equilibrium, the internal or external development of such society, its internal relations and its relations to other groups. Politics is thus mainly that which concerns the collective, a sum of individualities and/or multiplicities. It is from this point of view that political studies or political science enlarges itself to all the areas of a society (economics, law, sociology, etc.).)

    @ Italian: “Volendo tentare una definizione potremmo dire che la politica (dal greco πολιτικος,politikós) è quell’attività umana, che si esplica in una collettività, il cui fine ultimo – da attuarsi mediante la conquista e il mantenimento del potere – è incidere sulla distribuzione delle risorse materiali e immateriali, perseguendo l’interesse di un soggetto, sia esso un individuo o un gruppo.” (If we want to attempt a definition we could say that politics … is that human activity that is expresses itself in a collectivity, in which the ultimate goal — to actualize itself by means of the attainment and maintenance of power — bears on the distribution of material and immaterial resources, in pursuit of the interests of the subject, be it an individual or a group.) — as with the French Wikipedia, note how this one could be construed to subsume economics (distribution of resources) to politics, the opposite of the current typical American POV.

    One more language, (Brazilian) Portuguese: Whereas the Michaelis Moderno Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa (São Paulo 1998) continues in the statist lexicographical tradition noted above, here’s the Wikipedia definiton: “A palavra política denomina a arte de exercer o poder público, de governar ou de ocupar-se dos assuntos públicos em geral. Nos regimes democráticos, chama-se assim a atividade dos cidadãos que se ocupam dos assuntos públicos com seu voto ou com sua militância,” i.e., “The word politics means the art of exercising public power, of governing or of dealing with public affairs in general. In democratic regimes, it is also the name of the activity of citizens who deal with public affairs with their vote or with their militancy [emphasis added].” Not too long ago, that was politics in the USA, too. The pirates were pacific by comparison.

  10. JP says:

    Thanks A.J.: I enjoyed the discussion, and your impressive research, though I apologize to Gerard for commandeering his post. I missed the ’60s and ’70s, so I will defer to your experience as establishing that my definition is also of recent vintage.