Pirate Democracy?  
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

In our discussion of Berber society, we discovered that the Berber’s of the High Atlas Mountains democratically elected secular political leaders and even practiced a form of checks and balances by rotating the office in strict order across clans.

Another fascinating case of unlikely democracy is 18th century pirates. You might have imagined that a tough pirate like Bartholomew Roberts would have bullied and tyrannized his way to power. Not quite. In fact he needed a campaign manager “Lord” Dennis who entreated the crew

who by his Counsel and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth, and ward us from the Dangers and Tempests of an unstable Element, and the fatal Consequences of Anarchy

Answer: Roberts.

Instead of grabbing power, Roberts was elected on the basis of one-pirate-one-vote.

In his fascinating book The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson shows that such democracy was the norm amongst pirate crews who ravaged the Caribbean and other parts of the world in the 18th century.

Pirate crews not only elected their captains on the basis of universal pirate suffrage, but they also regularly deposed them by democratic elections if they were not satisfied with their performance.

Like the Berbers, or the US constitution, pirates didn’t just rely on democratic elections to keep their leaders under check. Though the captain of the ship was in charge of battle and strategy, pirate crews also used a separate democratic election to elect the ship’s quartermaster who was in charge of allocating booty, adjudicating disputes and administering discipline. Thus they had a nascent form of separation of powers.

Leeson shows that these democratic procedures were sanctified in pirate constitutions that required unanimous support before they were ratified. The constitution ratified by the crew of Captain Robert, for example starts: 

I. Every Man has a vote in the Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment.

So pirate ships were nascent democratic societies. But they were not just emulating British democracy. Nor did they slavishly adopt it from the Ancient Greek idea of democracy.

Most pirates were men and all adult males did not get the vote in the Representation of the People’s Act in 1918. Of course Britain did not invent universal male suffrage then. Demands for it go back at least to the Diggers and Levellers, radical groups that emerged during the English Civil War of the 1640s.

And of course democracy as a method of making decisions goes back far before that, as indeed does the separation of powers (the principles of which were well understood by whoever it was that designed the Constitution of the Roman Republic as we discuss in Why Nations Fail).

Now it could be that everyone was borrowing all of these great political ideas from the Greeks, but this doesn’t sound very likely. Pirates weren’t exactly well read in the canons of Greek political philosophy. Nor were the Berbers.

Moreover, as we will see when we return to this topic in the coming weeks, the attribution of the invention to democracy to the Greeks flies in the face of a vast amount of empirical evidence. In fact democracy was invented independently in many parts of the world on many different occasions just like farming was.

There is a troubling aspect about Leeson’s account of pirate democracy, however. This relates not to his facts, but to his explanation for why pirates used democracy. He seems to accept what we have called the “efficient institutions view” namely that pirate democracy and constitutionalism arose as an efficient solution to a principal agent problem (namely that pirates were worried that if they delegated power to their captains, power would be abused).

This positive theory of institutions of course is very different from that proposed in Why Nations Fail or our previous book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

Our approach is based not (certainly not) on the idea that democracy arose to solve some inefficiency. Rather, in our theory, it is all a matter of power. Democracy arises when nondemocratic elites are forced to cede power to the previously disenfranchised. This could improve economic efficiency, but it need not. Promoting efficiency is just not the motivation for democrats or their opponents.

Leeson doesn’t present any evidence on why pirates chose democracy and the separation of powers, though his argument will appeal to economists wedded to the paradigm of the Coase Theorem which applied in this context would mean that in the absence of (ill defined) transaction costs, the organization of pirate institutions would be economically efficient. (For an explanation of why the Coase Theorem should not apply to politics, see this paper).

We don’t have any evidence either on why pirates chose the institutions they had but Why Nations Fail is littered with examples of institutions from all over the world that cannot possibly be efficient. This at least suggests that assuming that pirate democracy promoted efficiency is dubious.

More likely, it arose because the distribution of de facto power was fairly equal among pirates. Maybe it was one-man-one-cutlass that drove one-man-one-vote and quite possibly was also the reason why income distribution was so compressed in pirate society.

On Roberts’ s ship:

The Captain and Quarter-Master [were] to receive two Shares of a Prize; the Master, Boatswain, and Gunner, one Share and a half, and other Officers one and a Quarter.

Democratic. Yes. Egalitarian. Not quite.

(Still one could advance other hypothesis about the roots of pirate democracy, the modernization hypothesis or the view that institutions just flow from human capital. Perhaps it was the high human capital levels of pirates that bred democracy. We leave this hypothesis to others to explore.)

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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