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In the Beginning Was The Pirate Deed

May 22, 2009

Peter Leeson is guest blogging over at the Volokh Conspiracy, amplifying some of the ideas in his new book, The Invisible Hook.  Lots of good stuff to find, but in particular, Leeson raises an interesting point that I think underscores one theme dear to our hearts here in the land of a thousand nations.  On the possible influences pirates had on Thomas Jefferson’s thinking, he writes:

Pirates confronted essentially the same dilemma in setting up their system of governance that James Madison famously described in Federalist 51. As Madison put it, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Madison’s solution to this dilemma was constitutional democracy. “A dependence on the people,” Madison argued, “is no doubt, the primary control on the government.” “[B]ut,” he continued, “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” “[T]he constant aim is to divide and arrange several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other—that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”

This was pirates’ solution as well–but they forged it more than half a century before Madison put pen to paper. Pirates, of course, weren’t the first to invoke this solution. And there’s good reason to think that some of the legitimate world’s early experiences with democracy, separated powers, and so on, may have influenced pirates’ system of governance.

But could the direction of influence have also run the other direction?

What’s interesting to me here is that the typical pirate wasn’t half the political theorist Madison was.  Or Jefferson for that matter.  And yet, because the conditions permitted it, these pirates evolved forms of governance that bore a strong resemblance to the complex constitutional democracy Madison later proposed.  The deed came first; the theory later. Perhaps independently.  It really doesn’t matter who influenced whom.  What’s exciting is that these pirates devised very complex political systems without any PhDs.  In governance as with all things, experimentation with market-like conditions will lead to surprising outcomes, outcomes whose benefits and complexity are beyond the understanding of any particular actor within the system.

This fact ought to auger well for seasteading.  Our minds are weaker than the systems they work in.  Given the right conditions and incentives, we might find political systems developing in ways that outstrip even the boldest speculations made by any political theorist out of Harvard.

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