The popularity of pirate histories and popular economics has culminated in The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter T. Leeson. Take a rational choice framework, mix with the golden age of Anglo-American piracy, and shake well (don’t forget to add a great cover). The resulting ideas are compelling and fun, and Leeson presents them enthusiastically and clearly. He’s excited about pirates, at least as much as he is about econ, and he wants to set the record straight. “Pirate fiction portrays seamen as choosing piracy out of romantic, if misled, ideals about freedom, equality, and fraternity,” but Leeson knows the reality was less about utopia and more about “piratical means, used to secure cooperation within pirates’ criminal organization, rather than piratical ends, as they’re often depicted.” And just about all pirate actions will come down to this.
Leeson makes no claim to being a historian and makes free use of secondary sources to present the historical record, aiming to interpret that record through the lens of economics. But still, there was plenty for me to learn about the basic history as well: the difference between buccaneers and pirates, for example, or the importance of the quarter-master on a pirate ship. Also the great size of pirate crews in comparison to those of merchantmen, and the truly great potential prize available to pirates in their golden age. And just about everything there is to learn about pirates is interesting. The romantic nature of the subject is really inescapable.
That remains true even when the motives of the outlaws are unwoven. Leeson contends that
only with economics can we make sense of a great deal of otherwise unintelligible individual behavior. Without economics, pirates, for example, are a veritable ball of contradictions. They’re sadistic pacifists; womanizing homosexuals; treasure-lusting socialists;
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