The Economics of Piracy

Vegas: Treasure Island’s Pirate Ship

We Americans are fascinated by piracy. From Treasure Island to the Pirates of the Caribbean,  novelists and filmmakers have capitalized on our idolatry of the nonconformist seafaring swashbuckler. Me, I’m not so fascinated. I tend to think of pirates as murderers and thieves rather than heroic idealists. It is precisely my disinterest in pirates that has caused me to take note the recent manifestation of piracy in my life.

I’m not sure when it started—maybe last fall with Ducan Sheik’s “There  Once was a Pirate” addition on my Spring Awakening soundtrack or the hilarious Wanda Sykes Somalian pirate skit in her DC HBO Special, “I‘ma Be Me.” But it was two weeks ago at CES when this piracy onslaught reached a theatrical crescendo. On my walk back from the convention center, I paused to watch the Treasure Island’ Sirens of TI pirate battle—child’s play when compared to Cirque du Soleil‘s  acrobatic pirates of , which I saw later that evening.

Such foreshadowing made it impossible to ignore an email that night from a friend drawing my attention to a book she thought I would appreciate: The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson.  This book title is more than just play on Adam Smith’s famed invisible hand mataphor; rather it further entrenches the idea of economic self-interest as THE driving factor of democratic ideology.

In an interview with the New York Times, Leeson parallels economic practices of piracy and those of modern day business, spanning topics from branding to M&A:

…once we recognize pirates as economic actors, businessmen really, it becomes clear as to why they wouldn’t want to brutalize everyone they overtook. In order to encourage merchantmen to surrender, they needed to communicate the idea that, if you surrender to us, you’ll be treated well.

Again, I’m not so fascinated.  I do agree that biologically, humans are animals, and as such, our actions are guided by base-level instincts like self-preservation.  But does this mean that all human aspiration can be reduced to such primal motivators? I hope not. If greed is THE foundational cornerstone of all human behavior then God help us.

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