Book review: The Invisible Hook – The Hidden Economics of Pirates

Peter Leeson’s study of “The Hidden Economics of Pirates”, The Invisible Hook, is theoretically correct, thoroughly grounded in historical research and fun to read. From the jacket:

Pack your cutlass and blunderbuss–it’s time to go a-pirating! The Invisible Hook takes readers inside the wily world of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century pirates. With swashbuckling irreverence and devilish wit, Peter Leeson uncovers the hidden economics behind pirates’ notorious, entertaining, and sometimes downright shocking behavior. Why did pirates fly flags of Skull & Bones? Why did they create a “pirate code”? Were pirates really ferocious madmen? And what made them so successful? The Invisible Hook uses economics to examine these and other infamous aspects of piracy. Leeson argues that the pirate customs we know and love resulted from pirates responding rationally to prevailing economic conditions in the pursuit of profits.

Leeson considers the legends of piracy — including Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts and Calico Jack Rackam — to demonstrate how their search for plunder led them to anticipate developments in human society. They adopted constitutional democracy 50 years before the United States. They engaged in collective enterprise with workers’ profit share. Some practiced racial tolerance and equality. Even these greedy, violent criminals were drawn to socially-desirable policies and social order by their rational self interest.

In his famous book Leviathan, Hobbes wrote, “it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” The astonishing contradictory conclusion of this book is that, even amongst the vilest criminals, the state is not strictly necessary to create and maintain order. I thoroughly recommend it.

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