Q&A with Author Peter Leeson

Pirates have made their return to the front pages, but they’ve been haunting the seas for years. A new book, The Invisible Hook, examines the economic history of pirates and debunks traditional understandings of pirate culture.

Author Peter Leeson, a professor at George Mason University, applied economic theories to piracy and uncovered new insights into the governmental structures of pirate culture.

Leeson spoke with The Hill about his findings and also how his research may be used to better understand the state of piracy in Somalia.


Q: In your book you mention that pirates had developed systems of democracy that predate that of the United States. This seems surprising.

It certainly surprised me. … The other thing: It wasn’t just democracy; it was not just a crude showing of hands. It was, in fact, a democratic system of checks and balances operated within a more sophisticated system of a kind of piratical separation of powers.

… I try to draw the parallels between what pirates are doing, and even more remarkably, the reasons that they give for why they are doing it with what Madison is describing in the Federalist Papers. … And I think the parallels are just incredible. So it is not just the system, it is also [the] reasoning behind [it] that was very similar.


Q: What are the fundamental democratic elements that were universal in pirate culture?

I think first it is the separation of powers. You have a captain who wields authority in certain circumstances who is democratically elected and you have a quartermaster who wields authority in other circumstances. It is kind of like the division of power in our government. And he is also democratically elected. I think that separation of power was absolutely critical because … it pitted ambition against ambition, to paraphrase Madison, and it was critical to limiting officer abuse on a pirate ship. …

The other important institution was that pirates created constitutions and wrote down their rules and established democracy as a kind of meta-rule for further crude discussion …

Q:Why did pirates write out constitutions?

There are good reasons why you would want to write this down. For pirates, the first of those reasons is that since they could not rely on government to secure cooperation, they had to do so through a pirate system of order. They wanted to get as much consent as possible, in fact unanimous consent, if possible, and so they wanted everybody to actually put their name to paper or make their mark … as a way of indicating we have all agreed to this; we will all abide by this … which helped cooperation. The other thing that writing it down did was that it created what I call in the book common knowledge, which is to say that it made it explicit when a pirate officer may be overstepping the narrowly circumscribed powers the crew had endowed him with.

Q: Are there correlations between what is happening in the Gulf of Aden and the era you describe in your book?

I think there are correlations. … Somali pirates, like their counterparts, are fundamentally businessmen, and they are also economic actors, and they are driven by their self-interest and they’re trying to make money. That is definitely the first thing that we see. …

The other kind of similarity we are beginning to see is an organizational one that I mentioned before. When Somali pirates started out, there was not enough of them and they did not spend enough time together to really form anything like a pirate society. What we have seen now with the explosion of Somali piracy, or the growth of it, anyway, is that they are starting to set up pirate communities … and, again, since they are an outlaw group, they need some private system of governance to keep their communities together. And perhaps unsurprising, what they have begun to resort to is some features of the 18th-century pirates. For example, they have written rules now.

Q: Finally, you used the dedication page of your book to propose to your girlfriend. What did she say?

Yes, yes, she has seen it and she said yes. Her name is Ania. I was delighted!