Going on the Account: The Sweet Trade, Via the Dismal Science

Review:  THE INVISIBLE HOOK by Peter T. Leeson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)  ISBN 0691137471

There is a new must-have book out there for students and scholars of pirates, one that approaches the subject from a unique angle.

Leeson examines pirates, and in particular the rovers from the Golden Age of Piracy, from an economic perspective.  As an economist, and currently the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Leeson does an analysis of the ways and means of pirates using the laws of economic theory to explain how business was conducted at sea.  A sample of his work in this field can be found in his article published by the New York University Journal of Law and Liberty , Vol. 4 No. 2.

There are a number of findings he presents which may surprise a general audience, findings that students of the Sweet Trade will be well versed with.  His discussions of among other topics the practice of parley (“pirate democracy” in the work), the pirate code and the use of the “Jolly Roger” are geared more for an audience that has not studied pirate practices, as he shatters such popular perceptions as the tyrannical pirate captain and pirate press gangs with well-documented evidence.  (Of course, “well-documented” in pirate studies being something of a misnomer, as there are not as many primary sources one can turn to, which Leeson readily acknowledges.)

For those familiar with pirates and their ways, however, the work’s value comes from reverse engineering the tome.  Leeson’s use of economics to explain pirates can be inverted, to enable models of pirate practices to explain economics.  Thus, concepts such as “rational choice” and the “principal-agent problem” which may not be familiar to someone that can relay from memory the last encounter between Robert Maynard and Edward Teach are now far more approachable, and are presented through such examples in a way that can be readily grasped.

(Some may take issue with explaining the use of the Jolly Roger through the concept of signaling.  A more obvious case could be made for explaining such flags with branding, which Leeson applies instead to the use of torture by pirates.)

The scholarship is exquisite, well laid out and noted, and the text is very approachable.  Whether you are new to the study of pirates or an old salt well versed in the topic, Leeson’s book deserves a place on your shelf.

Available via Amazon.com, bn.com, Borders.com, and your local bookseller

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