The Gist: Pirates self-governed through – surprise! – constitutional democracy
The second of a three part review of The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson and
Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly.
Avast ye landlubbers! In my last email, you learned that pirates were preferred employers who offered workers lucrative stock options, generous health benefits, and equal opportunity employment.
Now discover that these swashbucklers intuited the same ideas as the Founding Fathers — except decades earlier and without having to read Montesquieu.
Figure 1. “Sorry, lads, ‘twas only my other eye that could read. Should’ve finished school and learned letters with both.”
Often conscripted into the merchant marine, sailors suffered under the very real tyranny of captains at sea. By becoming pirates, they quite literally were taking up the proposition: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
And what device did pirates choose to keep their captains in line? Democracy.
Figure 2. Campaign signs were harder to post without lawns.
Bear in mind that no country at the time extended the vote to the typical sailor. Even in the comparatively restrained constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, the Magna Carta did more for aristocrats than it did for commoners. An unpropertied British sailor probably did not get to vote until the 20th century. America wasn’t available, and yet pirates were even more radical than America: each crew member, regardless of age, nationality, race, or gender, got a single vote. After all, each pirate was an owner.
Figure 3. “Just because my parrot always votes like me doesn’t mean he should lose the franchise!”
Captains were thus elected at the formation of the pirate crew but their term was not guaranteed to last. The crew could at any time oust the captain through a recall vote and, if the captain was as terrible as their previous merchantman leadership, he might very well be marooned. Interestingly, here was another example where the pirates’ very criminality served as a check on leadership: on a merchantman ship, mutiny was a crime; on a pirate ship, it was a formalized right.
Figure 4. Recalls resulted in lonely retirements. As you’d expect, the votes typically all came down to turnout in crucial Waukesha County.
Pirates also understood something crucial: men, perhaps especially pirates, could not be trusted. So they also instituted separation of powers. The crew comprised a legislature, the captain the executive, and a separately elected quartermaster a quasi-judiciary with special executive functions
The legislature elected the captain and quartermaster, held them accountable through recalls, determined ship destinations, and settled ambiguous controversies.
Figure 5. “Thank you for that report from the Rt. Dishonorable member from the Plundering Destination Committee. I think we can all agree to avoid North America. We are stick figures, after all, and there are too many beavers.”
The captain directed the operations of the ship but received special deference and extraordinary powers when the crew faced battle (not too crazily different from our own President’s war powers!). In the heat of conflict, pirates recognized the advantage of strong and decisive leadership. For that, the captain received a small multiple – up to 5x – of the typical crewman’s share, but received not many additional accommodations: he was expected to share his sleeping space and get the same provisions as the rest of the crew.
Figure 6. “This is going to be the most fabulous voyage of all time! We are going to build a big beautiful ship and the Spanish are going to pay for it! Put me in the Sea Suite!” – Orangemane
The quartermaster was considered the crew’s representative and was given powers that were generally abused by merchantman captains: He was responsible for allocating provisions, distributing loot, adjudicating conflicts, and administering discipline. Because quartermasters were often a natural alternative to failed captains, both competed for the crews’ affections and served as checks on each other.
But pirates did not simply rely on tradition or some version of criminal common law, they also insisted on another crucial restraint familiar to Americans: a written constitution or, in their parlance, a pirate code. With the election of a new captain, articles were drawn up that would specifically describe the rules of the ship: how plunder was to be distributed, what workman’s comp could be expected, how performance bonuses were to be rewarded, what activities were to be punished. Adoption of the code required unanimity so that pirates could hold each other accountable to what they all agreed. And when new crew members were recruited, they were specifically educated about the code’s provisions and made to sign their mark as a condition of employment.
Figure 7. An ordinary preamble. Later amendments protected the rights to violently assemble, keep and bear arms, give no quarter to soldiers of the crown, make unreasonable searches and seizures, inflict cruel and unusual punishment, etc.
Interestingly, pirate codes tended to regulate (at least onboard) some of the very activities that pirates are famous for. In one, gambling was banned, women were prohibited, drinking was curtailed, and even bedtime was established. One of the main arguments of the Invisible Hook is that pirates achieved governance without government rather successfully.
Were America’s Founding Fathers inspired by pirates? As far as I know, no. At the very least, there is no constitutional bedtime. Later Senators may have been inspired because “filibuster” is another name for pirate. But the Founders did consider piracy in one crucial respect: Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution specifies that “The Congress shall have Power” to do a specific number of things, including “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
What the heck is a Letter of Marque? Only the best part of pirating. A genuine pirate was an enemy of everyone and raided whatever ships appeared lucrative in his telescope. But if a pirate accepted a letter of marque, he instantly became legal – more specifically, a privateer. A privateer is a free agent authorized by a country to go attack its enemies and take prizes as compensation. While privateers were often financed by outside investors that substantially limited on-board democracy, the fact that you could go home safe after all your raids suggests a significant benefit.
Notably, this power remains available to Congress. So if you are in for an adventure, lobby your Congressman today! We could use the help in the War on Terror.
In my final email (for now) on pirates, you can learn the darker side of pirates and how government continuously bumbled handling piracy until it eventually got its act together.
Figure 8. Under the Black Flag: 7/10. Some great stories about pirates, but a bit scattered.
Figure 9. The Invisible Hook: 7/10. Fun premise worth reading, some arguments more interesting than others.
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I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!