Book Review: The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson


Author: Peter T. Leeson
Title: The invisible hook : the hidden economics of pirates
Publication Info: Princeton : Princeton University Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780691137476

Summary/Review:

I awaited the release of this book with great anticipation as it contains three elements I can’t resists: pirates, quirky application of social sciences,  and a terrific pun in the title.  Overall it did not disappoint.  Leeson examines the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1680-1720) through the lens of economics, seeking economic reason for what pirates did.  Much of pirate behavior is based in reaction to the harsh and unrewarding life of sailors under cruel captains.  Leeson shows how pirates preceded both James Madison and Adam Smith by decades by creating democracies and free market capitalism aboard their floating communities.  It was beneficial to the crews as a whole to elect their captains and to sign pirate codes that would determine fair treatment – and a fair share of the booty.  Pirates also should a fair amount of tolerance for black sailors among their crew making their racism subservient to the economic benefits of a good hand on board no matter what his color.

The “Jolly Roger” and the wild antics of pirates like Blackbeard also have an economic purpose – to force the pirates’ prey to surrender without a fight.  Sea battles would damage the pirates’ prize, their own ship, and perhaps even the pirates so it behooved them to act as threatening and crazy as possible to actually prevent violence.  For many of these reasons, pirate ships were actually popular among the ordinary sailors who were willing recruits into a society that would allow them a voice in how things are done and take home a greater share of wealth than they’d earn in the merchant marine.  The book concludes with a humorous management course as taught by a pirate with a syllabus of articles and books that back up the economics behind the pirate way.

One quibble I have in this book is that Leeson often deviates from economics to slip in Libertarian ideology in tangents that seem odd and out of place.  For example, he takes up several pages to convince the reader that all government is based on the threat of violence as opposed to pirate societies which were freely joined.  He even writes of the benefits of pirate torture in regulating the behavior of commercial ship captains (who had to treat their sailors well lest they too be caught and tortured by pirates) but seems to see only evil in any regulation whatsover by government.  Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable and educational book that brings the dismal science to life through the romance of piracy.  Arrr!

Recommended books: Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt; Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly
Rating: *** 1/2

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