Pirate economics

There’s a good bit about the economics of piracy (the classic ARRRRRR! kind of piracy, rather than the modern Somali kind) in this article by Stephen Sedley in the London Review of Books, discussing The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter Leeson:

The pirate ship regimes for which records survive were quite a lot better than those of naval and merchant vessels. In the 1720s Bartholomew Roberts’s ship’s articles established an Athenian democracy on his vessel in relation to ‘Affairs of Moment’. They gave every man free access to the ship’s victuals unless the crew voted “a Retrenchment” for reasons of scarcity. Loot was to be distributed in equal shares, save that the captain and quartermaster were entitled to two shares, the master, boatswain and gunner to one and a half shares, and the other officers to one and a quarter. Until £1000 apiece had been shared out the ship’s company was indissoluble; from that point they were free to leave, but before then desertion or retreat in battle was punishable by death or marooning. There was generous provision for disability benefit. Gaming for money was banned; lights out was at 8 p.m., after which time any drinking was to be done on deck; fighting was banned (“Quarrels to be ended on Shore, at Sword and Pistol”); smuggling women or boys aboard carried the death penalty; and the ship evidently carried its own orchestra, with terms that could have been negotiated by the Musicians’ Union: “The Musicians to have Rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other Six days and Nights, none without special Favour.”

You might consider much of this to be beyond anything that economic reductionism can explain. You might even start to think more benignly about a micro-society in which, as Leeson puts it, a single share separated the top of the pay scale from the bottom. But pirates (lefties may or may not be relieved to learn) did not have a “quasi-socialist … ideology”. It was, as ever, economic self-interest in action: egalitarianism was the only way to stop envy, favouritism and greed from disrupting the piratical enterprise. Perhaps; but if so, even anarchism would seem to come within the explanatory power of free-market economism.

I love that the top pirates apparently only earned twice what the lower orders earned, compared to the 50:1, 80:1 or whatever pay differentials of modern companies.

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9 Jul 2010 at Twitter

  • 7:26pm: Talking people on the train are even more distracting and annoying when you realise they're almost exactly the same as you.
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9 Jul 2010 in Links

Music listened to most that week

  1. Ikonika (22)
  2. Throwing Muses (13)
  3. The Wolfgang Press (12)
  4. Dinosaur Jr. (10)
  5. Miles Davis (8)
  6. Luscious Jackson (7)
  7. Yazoo (2)
  8. Nick Drake (2)
  9. Prince (1)
  10. Los Campesinos! (1)

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