Congressmen or Pirates? Choose Carefully, Me Hearties

April 29, 2009

For immediate release (683 words)

The brazen willingness of Washington to ratchet up national indebtedness to finance federal intervention in the economy has prompted some to liken its behavior to the plundering ways of pirates.

Recently, knowing that my casual interest in pirates had ramped up to real research while writing a libertarian-themed pirate novel, a friend at The Indiana Policy Review suggested I write an article directly comparing the fiscal policy antics of those in Washington, D.C. to the pirates of the past.

Of course, there is a vast difference between a band of 200 pirates floating on a short trip with a single goal — forcibly seizing booty and other property from unwilling victims — and a modern welfare state with elected leaders making policy decisions for a diverse polity of hundreds of millions of citizens. But comparing the popular concern about boundless discretionary authority exercised by our (elected) politicians to 17th-century pirates may hold a little more water than we might think at first. There is a connection in the need to hold officials accountable and create transparent governing rules.

As the economist Peter Leeson points out in his new book “The Invisible Hook,” the pirate community was largely honorable and transparent — at least to those living within it. Seventeenth-century pirates, in fact, were governed by strict rules that limited indiscretion by their leaders and crew members, and they were codified into Articles, or a Pirate Code (see example at left). These rules were designed to hold captains and other officers (e.g., quartermasters) strictly accountable for decisions that effected the crew, and to keep their leaders focused on a collectively determined and voluntarily agreed upon goal.

These codes created procedural transparency that made enforcement easy, and they included a healthy system of checks and balances to limit the potential for abuse. The crew could elect and depose a captain at any time except during a chase or in battle. They didn’t have to wait until the end of the trip, or vote only at the beginning of the trip. The goal was direct, quick accountability. Moreover, the codes covered all forms of conduct and behavior, including regulation of smoking, drinking and resolution of on-board disputes among crewmen.

As Leeson points out, pirate codes were consistently and strictly enforced; it was fairly common for captains to be replaced in mid-journey if the crew didn’t agree with their policies. One crew replaced its captain 17 times on one trip. Among the criminal pirate polity, there wasn’t much bait-and-switch. The consequences of adopting these tactics with members of their own community were dramatic and clearly spelled out in the Articles.

Contrast this certainty, transparency and accountability with what we see happening in Washington, D.C. over the bailout and stimulus money.

The Treasury Department is even thinking about exercising its option to purchase common shares of private firms as a way to secure managerial control. These tactics are not that far away from the ones used by 17th-century pirates to lure their hapless victims into a trap (e.g., lowering a peaceful nation’s flag and hoisting the Jolly Roger at the last minute).

In this case, it seems Washington is not only obscuring lines of accountability and diffusing transparency but treating the targets of regulation in the say way pirates treated victims outside their close-knit community.

Of course, the pirate analogy is limited. Despite the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is driving current policy, our commitment to Democratic values and an open society creates more transparency than other forms of government.

This isn’t the 17th-century Caribbean. And of course pirates were . . . well, pirates. They forcibly extracted wealth and property from their victims with little regard to issues of equity, social justice or fairness outside their tight little band. The plunder we see now in Washington, D.C., may be plunder but it’s legal, and we have done it to ourselves.

That said, there still is a case to be made for the accountability, transparency and rules of governance demonstrated in the brigand codes and ship’s articles. They proved capable, after all, of limiting indiscretion and abuse — even among pirates.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a nationally recognized expert on government reform and, pertinent to this essay, the author of “The Pirates of Panther Bay.”


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