Being a pirate in the early 1700s wasn’t easy. There were storms to worry about, flying cannonballs in the midst of sea fights and, if caught alive, the hangman’s noose.
As a result, and as you might imagine, the men who chose to become pirates were no strangers to violence. However, according to Peter Leeson—BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University—these men, universally recognized as “hell hounds,” lived remarkably peaceful and orderly lives aboard their own ships.
The reason, he says, had to do with the constitution (or “articles”) that pirates agreed to before boarding. In his book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, Leeson shares, among other things, how the pirates protected themselves and cooperated with each other peacefully by separating and delimiting power on their ships.
For example, in order to not suffer under a dictatorial captain, constitutions said that everyone aboard would elect the captain (each pirate getting one vote) and that they could depose him at any time in the same manner. Also, a second officer, the quartermaster, gained office in the same way, and held important powers—such as distributing loot or disciplining rule-breakers—that served as checks on the power of the captain.
All this probably sounds wildly inapplicable to your life today, but that’s hardly the case. Consider in a little more detail how the constitutions were written. As Leeson puts it:
Pirate constitutions [checked the quartermaster’s ability to prey on the crew] by making regulations, compensation, and punishments explicit, which circumscribed the quartermaster’s discretion in his duties. This narrowed his latitude in exercising the power his crew endowed him with to check the captain’s authority.The operative word here is explicit. They did not, for example, say that compensation “would be determined by the quartermaster”—or that punishment for breaking various rules “would be at his discretion”—or that he may decide how much each person makes “according to what he thinks is fair.”
Say what you will about pirates—and there are many bad things to say about them—it’s to their credit that they would not board a ship without such assurances and that they took the time to find out what they were getting into before hopping on board. Again, according to Leeson, considered separately from the ultimately doomed game they were involved in, this worked out well for them:
Since the constitution clearly delineated guidelines for the quartermaster to follow in administering the ship’s rules, and constitutions were unanimously consented to, everyone knew when the quartermaster was transgressing his power and could agree that a transgression was in fact a transgression. This enabled pirates to coordinate a common response to quartermaster abuse, which was to depose him and elect a new one.The clearly written constitutions also served to squelch abuse before it began:
Since quartermasters knew everyone consented and agreed to the rules governing the ship, and furthermore, because the constitution made the rules quartermasters were to administer explicit, quartermasters also knew they couldn’t get away with abusing their authority. If a quartermaster tried to abuse his power, the entire crew might react against him.Throughout The Invisible Hook, on the issue of constitutions and many others, Leeson points out that we could learn a lot from these pirates. And he’s right.
To indicate why, leave the pirates at bay for a moment, fast forward to the present and to your own life—particularly the laws you live under. Have you ever asked yourself if you know even a tiny percentage of those laws—or, considering the rules of the future as applied to your work, wondered how much of what you earn over the next few years you will be allowed to take home?
Such questions are presently unanswerable. To name a percentage, you must know the totality of laws in existence. But there are too many to count. It’s also impossible to know how much you can keep of what you will one day in the future earn. After all, your neighbors haven’t voted on that yet and whatever number they decide on doesn’t mean anything specific today anyway given how quickly the dollar is being debased.
In many more ways than the above, you and everyone you know are currently on a ship where the “captain” and “quartermaster” can do almost whatever they want. The problem is not just that there are so many laws, however, or that they are increasing so fast. It’s something much more and ultimately much worse.
If you want to name the key to so much current uncertainty, so much strife, and so much growing hatred between people, you can place the blame in large part on the vagueness of our laws today—on the lack of rules being stated clearly and explicitly, as was the case for those pirates.
This vagueness leaves people increasingly subject to the whim of bureaucrats, with nothing to protect them but the hope that those who hold power will either not abuse the laws into which they can read anything they want or that the bureaucrats will abuse such laws—granting them special favors and more security, at least for a time.
In other words, the very thing that provided pirates in the 1700s with a great measure of security aboard their own ships is increasingly absent today. And absent clearly written laws governing what we can of right do, or not, and why, the ship we’re all on is increasingly chaotic, at war with itself, and going down.
It’s sad to say so, but nevertheless true: when you think about the ambiguity of laws being written today and thus the amount of leeway government officials are given over our lives, it’s enough to look fondly back on the constitutions of these pirates and at least in that one respect wish we had it so good.
Daniel Wahl writes for The Purposeful Reader on everything from what counted as money before even gold to the DIM hypothesis by Leonard Peikoff. If you're wondering what book to read next, you may find the site's combination of useful quotes and in-depth reviews a big help.