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In Defense of Pirates (The Old Time Ones)

by Peter Leeson
Apr 10, 2009

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Peter Leeson

All pirates are thugs, and the world would be better off without them. But not all pirates are equal. Unlike their Somali successors, early 18th century pirates, men like Blackbeard, "Black Bart" Roberts, and "Calico" Jack Rackam, weren't only thieves. They were also early experimenters with some of the modern world's most cherished values, such as liberty, democracy, and equality.

At a time when the legitimate world's favored system of government was unconstrained monarchy, early 18th-century pirates were practicing constitutional democracy. Before setting sail each would-be pirate crew drew up and agreed to a set of written rules that governed them. These rules regulated gambling, smoking, drinking, the adjudication of conflicts, and in some cases even prohibited harassing members of the fairer sex.

18th-century pirate constitutions established democratic governance for their roguish commonwealths. Crewmembers elected their captains by popular vote and democratically removed captains who dared to misuse their power. Because of this surprising system, far from tyrannical, the average 18th-century pirate captain was a dutiful, elected executor of his constituents' will.

Historical pirates understood what James Madison pointed out in the Federalist Papers—that the most important check on leaders' use of power is society's ability to select them. But they recognized this, and implemented it, more than half a century before Madison put pen to paper.

18th-century pirates also created an early system of social insurance and enshrined this in their law. Sea dogs injured on the job received workers' compensation from the crew's common purse—five pieces of eight for the loss of an arm, 10 pieces of eight for the loss of a leg, and so on. A maimed pirate didn't have to worry about a work-sustained injury leaving him without a bottle of rum to spit in.

Some historical pirates even embraced racial tolerance before their legitimate counterparts. England didn't abolish slavery until 1772. In the United States slavery persisted until 1865, and blacks didn't enjoy equal rights as citizens, politically or in the workplace, until even later than this. Some historical pirates, however, extended suffrage to their black crewmembers and subscribed to the practice of "equal pay for equal work," or rather, "equal pay for equal prey," in the early 1700s.

Like modern Somali pirates, historical Caribbean pirates were also violent thugs and deserve our condemnation. But historical pirates, at least, gave us something more than violent thuggishness, and perhaps even something to praise—an at least partial embrace of liberty, democracy, and equality in time when it was hard come by.

Peter Leeson is an economics professor at George Mason University and author of The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics or Pirates.

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