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« APEE 2013 April 14-16 | Main | Efficient Institutions are Context Dependent »


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The Leeson explanation seems plausible and well documented for some 18th century piracy, when crew abuse was widespread and the pirates were European in origin, but I would question whether his explanation can be extended to contemporary piracy, which occurs in a maritime context in which crew abuse is relatively infrequent and most of the pirates come from strongly hierarchical societies.

Piracy can be state supported -- and indeed, it was in the 16th through 18th century via letters of marque and privateering. It can also be conducted by hierarchical criminal gangs. The latter form of organization would be my starting hypothesis for much of today's piracy.

It seems to me that both theories do not contradict each other and do not apply to the same situations. Pete Leeson talks about voluntary cooperation, whereas Daron Acemoglu talks about coercive extraction. Political institutions in the Acemoglu are by no means efficient, but social institutions in the Leeson sense tend to be.

One might be able to reconcile the two by recognizing the fact that pirates are going to be of a particular psychology more often than not.

In Clare Graves' emergentist psychology, we evolve from tribal to heroic (think ancient Athens) to authoritative (think Medieval Europe) to classical liberal to egalitarian (think of the line from Rousseau to postmodernism) to integrationist (Hayek) to holistic (Max Borders, me, probably the Bleeding Heart Libertarian people). Pirates seem to be at the second level, which is typified by being interested primarily in power and in rejecting authority. Which sounds like a pirate -- or a gang member. If there are a few around, they will make empires which they will rule, but if society is dominated by them, we will get an Athenian-style democracy.

The institution of democracy is going to emerge precisely because people at this psychological level are not going to put up with having someone over them. Either they are going to be in charge, or power will be shared equally. We see this too in gangs, with rituals emerging to help mediate the levels of hierarchy that do emerge.

It seems, then, that understanding the level of psychosocial of pirates would help one reconcile these two views.

Nice discussion but couldn't the same quote be used to support Acemoglu-Robinson's hypothesis that pirates didn't like the abuse of the hierarchical merchant ships, hierarchy that mirrored (and got help at enforcement from) the non-democratic societies under whose flag they flew. Operating as they often did, without the backing of such state institutions, captains would have been forced to cede power to "the previously disenfranchised".
A simple test of this might be to ask whether privateers (who did have that state backing) were less likely to run their ships democratically compared to other types of pirates.

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