Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Even pirates in the 18th century got to vote for their boss!

There's a new book called The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter T. Leeson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 296 pages, $24.95).
An article in Reason reviewing the book talks about the differences in the ways in which pirates and sailors on legitimate ships worked:
"[A] pirate’s life had less publicized qualities as well: Ships were known among sailors for their relatively decent living conditions, profitsharing opportunities, democratic practices, and racially integrated crews. Life “on the account,” as pirating was known, was often far more civilized than legitimate seamanship.

"[Pirates] invented their own ways of doing business. Decades before the American Founders got their act together, pirates were drafting documents full of voting rights, juries, checks and balances, rules for property allocation, even methods for impeachment. The buccaneers may have been less concerned with natural rights than with survival and claiming their fair share of booty, but the end result feels surprisingly like the kind of self-governance we expect from enlightened modern republics. Perhaps even better, since the deal was truly voluntary (for the pirates if not their prey). No one is born a pirate, and everyone has to swear into the contract on each venture.

"[T]his “rougish Commonwealth” also had due process. Caprtains were elected, and they could be removed by a vote of the crew. Speeches were given for and against candidates. One of Capt. Roberts’ sailors, for example, urged his fellows to vote for a leader “who by his Counsel and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth... such a one I take Roberts to be. A Fellow! I think, in all Respects, worthy of your Esteem and Favour.” Speeches also contained warnings and reminders of the power of the people: “Should a Captain be so saucy as to exceed Prescription at any time, why down with him! it will be a Caution after he is dead to his Successors, of what fatal Consequence any sort of assuming may be.

"Balancing the powers of the captain was the quartermaster, the captain’s peacetime counterpart. Sort of a den mother with a blunderbuss, he oversaw the distribution of loot and generally kept peace on the ship by enforcing the rules and arbitrating disputes. He too could be replaced at any time by a vote."
And in contrast, here's a look at the lives of (legitimate but lowly) sailors:
"If legally sanctioned sailor pay was bad, the working coditions were worse. Captains on merchant ships held absolute power over their crews, and they regularly ordered floggings, revoked pay or rations, or tied men to the mast. Sailors could sue when they got home, and they occasionally won, but that’s cold comfort when you’re six months at sea, stripes from the lash stinging your back, and ordered to forfeit your rum ration."
And here we are, in the 21st century, working in dictatorship systems that even pirates of the 18th century did not stand for!

For the record: Obviously, I do not support or condone piracy in any way.

(If you have any comments, please email me at cvdhruve@gmail.com. You can get more information about my book and reader comments at cvdhruve.com)