Pirate Ships, Anarchy, Reputation, and Fractals

I finally got around to reading Peter Leeson's essay in the current edition of Cato Unbound. Lots of good stuff there, especially about how African producers turned the tables on the middleman and protected themselves from plunder.

Here’s how the credit institution worked: Producers would not produce anything today but would instead wait for middlemen to arrive in their villages looking for goods to plunder. With nothing available to steal the middlemen had two options: return to the coast empty-handed after having made a trip to the interior, or make an agreement with producers to supply the goods they required on the basis of credit. In light of the costliness of their trip to the interior, middlemen frequently chose the latter

According to their credit arrangements, middlemen advanced payment to producers and agreed to return later to collect the goods they were owed. When they returned for this purpose all that was available for taking was what they were owed, so stealing was not an option. Instead, middlemen frequently renewed the credit agreement, which initiated a subsequent round of credit-based trade, and so on.

This simple arrangement performed two critical functions in allowing producers to overcome the threat of force that middlemen presented. First, it enabled them to avoid being plundered, as though they had not produced anything at all, but also to realize the gains from trade, as though middlemen did not pose a threat of violence. Second, it transformed producers in the eyes of middlemen from targets of banditry into valuable assets they had an interest in protecting. If middlemen wanted to be repaid they needed to ensure that their debtors remained alive and well enough to produce. This meant abstaining from violence against producers and protecting producers against the predation of others.

I would add that the institution of "reputation assessment" was created. Middlemen who provided protection to their current producer-clients would be able to demonstrate future potential producer-clients that they live up to promises. Similarly, producers who developed quality goods in a timely manner would demonstrate to future middlemen that they are worth dealing with.

On the topic of pirate ships, Lesson arguest that these were examples of "anarchy".

Even by modern standards the institutions pirates devised for this purpose were remarkably sophisticated. Pirates created one of the earliest forms of written constitutions they called their “articles, which codified many of the rules that governed their ships, as well as punishments for rule breakers. These included rules specifying the division of booty, “laws” against theft, and even workman’s compensation insurance to support crew members injured in battle.

To apply punishments and resolve disputes between crew members, pirates created an office called the “quartermaster.” Crew members controlled quartermasters both through their articles, which prescribed the “laws” quartermasters could apply, and by democratically electing crew members to this office.

The office of the quartermaster allowed pirates to overcome another obstacle anarchy posed for their organization—restraining potentially abusive pirate captains. A captain endowed with unlimited authority would be able to prey on his crew, skimming booty, mistreating crew members, and so on. To check such abuse pirates initiated one of the earliest systems of divided power, which transferred authorities susceptible to captain abuse to the quartermaster instead. In conjunction with also democratically electing their captains, pirate checks and balances overcame the threat of captain predation.

I believe arguments like this are susceptible to, for lack of a better label, "fractal" criticisms. When you zoom in on certain types of fractals, you keep seeing the same pattern no matter how far you zoom in.

Similarly, when you zoom in on a world dominated by states, you keep seeing states, even if they have labels like "homeowners assocations", "Bloods and Crips", or "pirate ships".

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Any form of governance that

Any form of governance that has unanimous consent of the governed is anarchist.
In the case of pirate ships, sailors were entirely free, at no cost, to change ships, stay on land or join if the specific rules applied on the ship suited them or not. If I may draw a comparison with market anarchies, ships were jointly owned homes / enterprises in an entirely contractual society. No one was compelled to join or leave except if they themselves tried to coerce others, just like basic propertarian justice stipulates. Well, except for the part about boarding ships, killing people and looting. But then, those targets were not considering themselves bound by the same form of justice.
At the higher level, crews enjoyed the same conditions: ships would join or leave fleets at will and establish mutually-agreeable contracts between them.
Anarchies can, and generally do, have social contracts, when those are unanimously and freely accepted.

yeah but...

...once on the ship, the crew members can't leave. Sure they could jump
overboard, but that's not much of an option. They're bound by the laws
that are created there. They're bound by force to obey whatever
leader/captain emerges. How's that different from a state?

It's actually very

It's actually very different. The sailors are free to stop consenting to the rules of the ship, to change those rules and attain another unanimous consent (it did happen from time to time, according to Leeson), and to jump off ship if they wanted to. They didn't do it (well, not often anyway) not because of rules forbidding it and being enforced by violence, but because of the laws of physics and the very circumstances they sailors had put themselves into out of their own free will.

In the case of states, there always are artificial constraints added to the natural ones arising from the situation. I don't see any such artificial constraint (as in: created by the will of someone else) in the case of pirates.

Also, I think you'll see, in Leeson's paper about pirates, that the one major and common trait of pirates' rules was precisely that the sailors could disagree to the rules at anytime and not be punished for that beyond being simply left alone. According to Leeson this is because most priates came from merchant or military ships where they suffered extremely harsh treatments at the hands of their captains, so they were especially eager NOT to repeat that situation. In fact, he documents that dissenters would often be peacefully brought to the nearest port, or at most (in case of a crime) brought to the nearest shore and left there with a bullet, a gun and a bottle of water.

Per the paper

Yes, unanimous consent was needed for the constitutions prior to departure (that's sort of implied by the fact that they chose to join the expeditions in the first place), but once the ship departed, there was a lot of "democracy" that went on. A quote from the paper (page 21):

"The Rank of Captain being obtained by the Suffrage of the Majority"

I.e., the crew members had to abide by the will of the majority in who their "ruler" would be. Sure, they had other checks and balances, like elections, the quartermaster, etc, but so do modern day democracies. Sure the crew members could leave once the ship lands somewhere, but heck, so could I leave this country. Functionally, I see what's described about these pirate ships as different from modern day democracies only in a matter of degree, not kind. They're miniature states.

On a ship, there are a

On a ship, there are a number of decisions that must be taken exclusively. For example, it cannot sail in multiple different directions simultaneously. That's what the role of "captain" entails. I agree that they could, on the other hand, have devised a better method for managing supplies than a quartermaster (in particular I would have gone for a "to each his own", since the supplies can be divided among the crew, and let everyone trade) ; but in any case, the attributions of those roles were limited to those exclusive decisions, so one cannot simply slap a "ruler" label on those when they don't get to make the rules. Simply put: there had to be a single decision taken that would apply to everyone who was to stay on the ship, and there was no possible way around that, so they simply used one of several methods (suffrage of the majority mostly) for getting those decisions.

That means there were a number of constraints - which were adressed using votes most of the time - that did not arise from the will of a given person or group of persons, but from the circumstances those people had freely placed themselves in. That's a very fundamental distinction from nation-states and current representative democracies, that must not be overlooked.

So, no, I still don't agree with calling pirate ships "mini-states".

"Sure the crew members could leave once the ship lands somewhere, but heck, so could I leave this country"

No, you're not currently free to leave the country, but merely to change country. Tried escaping from having any nationality lately ? There's no escape from states. There was an exit from pirate ships, and people were not even punished for choosing to take this exit. That's vastly different from the situation nation-states citizens are in.

Similarly, in a modern democracy...

...there are decisions that are impractical to be made by majority vote, let alone unanimous vote. I don't see this as a distinguishing feature of pirate ships. Further, even if there is some necessity for decision-making by a single ruler, isn't that just a justification of non-anarchic outcomes? I.e., "This part wasn't anarchy because it's simply unavoidable."

That means there were a number of constraints - which were adressed using votes most of the time - that did not arise from the will of a given person or group of persons, but from the circumstances those people had freely placed themselves in. That's a very fundamental distinction from nation-states and current representative democracies, that must not be overlooked.

Many people choose to move to the US. They freely made this decision. Similarly, many people freely choose to stay in the US. They could leave for another country, one with fewer rules. Or they could decide to try to live in the ocean on a yacht. Or they could try to discover an uninhabited island in the Pacific. Yet they don't. Aren't they revealing some sort of consent, even if it's only "partial"?

No, you're not currently free to leave the country, but merely to change country. Tried escaping from having any nationality lately? There's no escape from states. There was an exit from pirate ships, and people were not even punished for choosing to take this exit. That's vastly different from the situation nation-states citizens are in.

Setting aside communist states that shoot you if you try to leave, I don't see much of a difference in the choices/outcomes of leaving the US vs leaving a pirate ship. Are there different destinations available in leaving one vs the other?

Anarchy can't be so simple

"Any form of governance that has unanimous consent of the governed is anarchist."

Under this definition anarchic governance cannot exist. People
change their minds, after all. The second the "government" starts
behaving in ways any individual does not consent to, then is when it
has failed to live up to this standard. In fact the very commission of
any illegal act, regardless of whether it is a crime or not, is an
empirical demonstration that some individual no longer consents to
government rule.

That's why we label such individuals criminals and pretty much
ignore their consent. Government can not behave on the basis of
unanimous consent. Nor can any sort of society. It's a mistake to
believe we need unanimous consent to enforce peoples rights. We don't.

"The second the "government"

"The second the "government" starts
behaving in ways any individual does not consent to, then is when it
has failed to live up to this standard."

In this example I don't see any contradiction. My definition only implies that there are alternatives people can switch to anytime, without there being constraints imposed by human will other than theirs.

For example, the fact that sailors can't easily jump ship mid-travel is not a constraint imposed by a human will, but by the laws of physics and the situation the sailor put himself into by his own free will. It is therefore not governance.

"In fact the very commission of
any illegal act, regardless of whether it is a crime or not, is an
empirical demonstration that some individual no longer consents to
government rule."

That's consistent with what I said. The very moment somebody perpetrates something that is "illegal", either of two cases arise:

- the person is simply changing whatever they are consenting to, which means he or she is still behaving according to this anarchic principle

- or that person's act constitutes a form of governance upon someone else, that is not consented to, in which case he or she is violating this anarchic principle

So I don't see how this definition bars anarchic governance from existing. The only requirement is that the "government" does not punish the dissenter in the first case.

Consent?

<blockquote>"The only requirement is that the "government" does not punish the dissenter in the first case."</blockquote>

So the government cannot punish someone for the person is simply changing whatever they are consenting to.   In other words the government cannot punish someone for essentially breaking a contract.   Why not?

Also I don't know if your two cases are comprehensive.  Mainly because one can run afoul of "this anarchic principle" when someone else changes their mind about what they consent to.   They could unilaterally break the contract too.

So you have a ship full of pirates and some subset decides they no longer consent to being sailors on this ship and ask to be dropped off at the nearest legal port, however the rest of the pirates insist that they stick to the original plan, intercept the vessel carrying the gold and only then go to the originally planned pirate port.   So who wins?  Well you can't decide based upon the agreed upon rules because anyone can say "Well I don't consent to those rules either".   Physics be damned because we know that the ship can physically change direction.  

There is no way to avoid violating someones consent to the present conditions in this case.   There consent changed and you had to violate it.  

Unlike the girl who changes her mind after consenting to sex and getting naked this cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of all consenters.   In the case of the girl the guy just stops when she says "No".   In this case of the pirates the consent of somebody must be violated.

In order to fix this you must switch to a model in which consent has a timeframe. Which leads to it's own problems like consent to slavery.

"In other words the

"In other words the government cannot punish someone for essentially breaking a contract.   Why not?"

I'd point to Rothbard's identified limitations on contracts as an explanation. But then, pirates preceded ol' Murray... No, I don't think any form of governance can be anarchistic and enforce contracts that have been repudiated, outside of an arbitration of what each party is justly owed (an arbitration that is meant to be consensual after the fact). Leeson's paper reports that such kind of dissension almost never happened (which is, I believe, his way for saying he couldn't find a single documented case) so I can't say exactly how this would have been played on pirate ships... which means we can't tell whether or not such a situation proves or disproves the "anarchic" character of pirate ships.

"So you have a ship full of pirates and some subset decides they no longer consent to being sailors on this ship and ask to be dropped off at the nearest legal port, however the rest of the pirates insist that they stick to the original plan, intercept the vessel carrying the gold and only then go to the originally planned pirate port."

I still don't see anything here that contradicts my first definition (but then, I gave a lot of thought to it initially. Anarchy really is that simple.)

The majority sailors cannot force the others into participating to the battle without violating the principle. In return those can't force the majority, which still decides where the ship will go, to bring them *now* to the nearest port, they'll have to wait afterwards, and those will bring them to the port of their own choosing - they can still jump off the ship if that doesn't suit them. Otherwise they would be the ones enslaving the rest of the crew into bringing them out, whereas the majority sailors don't have to oblige and provide them with somehting they hadn't agreed to provide initially and that they still don't agree to provide now. If a sailor or group of sailors dissents they are to be left alone and not punished for that - it doesn't mean furnishing them with whatever they'd then happen to desire against the will of others.

We can only guess at what they would have done in this case, out of what Leeson tells about the motives of pirates: the insistance on not being bullied by the captain or anyone else, that is ever-present in the paper, leads me to thinking that they wouldn't punish pacific dissent. 

Credit institution

The example given bothers me. Maybe I got it wrong.
The middlemen arrive, and they pay in advance for the goods. What do they pay with? Money? Goods? Anyway there are no produced goods to steal. They come back later and they can take the produced goods that they already paid for. Wait, but what about the money the gave or the goods they bartered... can't they take it back? Well they wouldn't because they want to keep trading, but that same argument applies to situations where payment is not done in advance. One explanation is that these goods were food, food producer turned to producing the goods the middlemen wanted and ate the food provided instead, they could get more food that way. Somehow it means there are no savings. Still, the credit institution seems useless in that case because the middle men know that unless they pay with food, the village won't even be able to produce the desired goods. Anyway the need for credit does not seem properly established here.

Do Pirates Prove that Anarchy Can't Work?

The article on anarchic organization of pirate ships is interesting. I don’t know if all pirate ships were organized that way but this shows that one of the default ways persons can successfully organize themselves is anarchically. Several caveats need to be addressed before concluding that this system is the way to go for everyone all the time. These pirate organizations were temporary so you didn’t have problems of succession, seniority, family problems ,women and children to deal with.In any case they were dependent in a parasitic way on more centralized societies.It appears that small organizations can work like this. Even large groups such as tradesmen and professionals can organize like this for limited purposes. Is there any upper limit in population number that occurs before factors arise that require formal government with coercive powers? I think that if things get so big you don’t know what your neighbor is doing, you eventually need some formal laws with coercive powers and a means of exerting it. OK at first these officials and laws are “private” but then as things get bigger they start getting public. As long as space and resources are unlimited people can always split into small groups and leave. This only lasts so long before the commons becomes tragically overe utilized. Then conflict is inevitable. Even without this problem, many societies practice violence against others for glory,fun, and profit, especially pirates.

Lastly how well do small anarchic entities handle the common defense. It seems that those societies that were touted as anarchic such as Iceland, Ireland and now Somalia were rather defenseless against raiders from foreign cultures. For instance the Barberry pirates raided Iceland and carried off numerous slaves. The Viking behaving like pirates enslaved Ireland. Now in anarchic Somalia Islamist terrorists wreak havoc and in response international military power is brought in. Ironically Somalia itself had become a launching place for pirates menacing international trade. What a pity these budding democrats were soon being harassed by governments. If people would just play nice anarchy might work,. Too bad they don’t.