By David Henderson
Despite the book’s title, a takeoff on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” Leeson does not claim that pirates were led by their self-interest, as Smith’s businessmen were, to make things better for the non-criminal class. Rather, he argues, we can understand pirate behavior by applying the economic tools that we use to understand the behavior of non-criminal businessmen. Leeson does so relentlessly, explaining why they showed the
Jolly Roger, established a reputation for savagery, shared the loot relatively equally,
didn’t discriminate against black people, and had — believe it or not — tight restrictions preventing their leaders from having toomuch power.
A key division of power was between the captain and the quartermaster. The captain had absolute power in times of battle, but the quartermaster, who was democratically elected, had the power to allocate provisions, divide the loot, and administer discipline. And the crews disciplined the captains. Leeson tells of one episode in which the captains of a pirate fleet borrowed some fancy clothes that were part of the loot and wore them to attract local women. The crews became outraged at this transgression. Writes Leeson: “[I]f only all citizens guarded their polity’s division of power as jealously as pirates.” He has a point. Notice how accustomed we’ve become, for example, to the U.S. president using Air Force One for political purposes or for going on vacation (or dates). And yet we do nothing.
One last note: Leeson is obviously a romantic. The sole line on the dedication page is, “Ania, I love you; will you marry me?” How many people do you know who are so romantic that they will use a page of their first single-authored book to propose? Apparently, the fair damsel said yes. Aargh.