pageok
pageok
pageok
[Peter Leeson, guest-blogging, May 18, 2009 at 9:57am] Trackbacks
Private Law and Order: Somali Pirate Edition

As I discuss at length in The Invisible Hook, those pop-culture phenoms, the pirates of old, had a well-developed system of private law and order. Early 18th-century pirates created rules that prohibited violence and theft; regulated gambling, smoking, and drinking; and established procedures for selecting officers of these laws' enforcement. The result was surprisingly orderly and cooperative early 18th-century pirate societies.

However, until recently, these sea dogs' Somali successors showed little discernable social organization. In large part this is because they didn't form societies. There weren't enough Somali pirates, nor did they spend enough time together plying their illicit trade, to constitute a group (or groups) requiring law and order.

But times for the Somali pirates, they are a changing. Over the last year or so Somali piracy has flourished into a full-blown economic activity in some of Somalia's coastal communities. Somalia's modern sea bandits pirate full time; and while they spend little time together on their ships, they spend significant time together in their pirate communities on land. A new, albeit different, pirate society is being born.

Pirates thus face a governance problem they haven't faced since, well, the 18th century. And they're rising to the occasion. Somali sea dogs have a code of conduct that includes rules for dealing with inter-pirate theft, conflict, and theft from their victims.

According to one Somali pirate, for example, "If any one of us shoots and kills another, he will automatically be executed and his body thrown to the sharks." Further, this pirate added, "If a pirate injures another, he is immediately discharged and the network is instructed to isolate him. If one aims a gun at another, he loses five percent of his share of the ransom."

According to another Somali sea dog, "Anybody who is caught engaging in robbery on the ship [the pirates overtake] will be punished and banished for weeks. Anyone shooting a hostage will immediately be shot." "I was once caught taking a wallet from a hostage. I had to give it back and then 25,000 dollars were removed from my share of the ransom."

The Somali pirates' "laws" are enforced by a "mobile tribunal," a kind of traveling pirate court, that oversees relations between the significant number of Somali "pirate cells"— separate but coordinated bands of sea scoundrels that dot Somalia's coastline.

There remain important differences between 18th century- and modern Somali-pirate governance. These differences reflect the different, specific governance needs of each kind of pirate's community. For example, it was important for early 18th-century pirates to regulate smoking because of the significant negative externality one pirate's unrestricted tobacco use could impose on his partners in crime. Early 18th-century pirate ships were made of wood and cloth and carried large quantities of gunpowder. A careless pirate smoker was thus liable to destroy the ship or, worse yet, blow the crew to smithereens.

Modern pirating vessels, in contrast, are metal, and aren't carrying gunpowder. One pirate's smoking behavior poses a much smaller risk to the rest of the crew. And on land, where modern pirates spend the majority of their time together, smoking presents no such risk to others. Somali pirates, then, don't need to create rules governing tobacco use in their society; so they don't.

Similarly, given their unique governance needs, Somali pirates have private institutions of law and order that 18th-century pirates didn't have, such as their traveling court. Since Somali pirate organization involves the cooperation of numerous and geographically separated groups, Somali pirates require a mobile judiciary that can oversee conflicts and enforces pirate law "industry wide."

In contrast, early 18th-century pirate societies were floating ones--those aboard their ships. They operated as independent units rather than as part of a coordinated whole together with all of the other pirates in the Caribbean. Eighteenth-century pirates therefore had no need for a traveling court. Each crew resolved its disputes on board via an officer called the quartermaster whose judicial authority extended only over the members of his crew.

Private pirate law and order is alive and well in allegedly "lawless" Somalia, and highlights two important lessons. First, even outlaws require social order and private governance institutions emerge to create this order when government does not. Second, when they emerge endogenously, as in do pirate societies, these governance institutions develop to reflect the particular needs of the individuals they govern. The resulting effectiveness of such institutions is certainly part of the reason for 18th-century pirates' success. I suspect the private governance institutions that support the Somali pirates' criminal economy deserve considerable credit for these sea dogs' success so far too.

LarryA (mail) (www):
And on land, where modern pirates spend the majority of their time together, smoking presents no such risk to others. Somali pirates, then, don't need to create rules governing tobacco use in their society; so they don't.
I guess they haven't heard of secondhand smoke. Any chance we could send some of our nanny-state folks on a cruise?
First, even outlaws require social order and private governance institutions emerge to create this order when government does not. Second, when they emerge endogenously, as in do pirate societies, these governance institutions develop to reflect the particular needs of the individuals they govern.
"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Jefferson is alive and well in Somalia?
5.18.2009 10:34am
merevaudevillian:
One extremely problematic issue of this entire approach is that it seems to miss the forest for the trees. There's no question--at least, in my mind--that every collective group of the "lawless," be they members of the Mafia, or drug lords, or pirates, have some set of internal governance, structure, and self-rule. The issue about a group being "lawless" is not that it is internally lawless; it is that it refuses to acknowledge external laws that would constrain its behavior. No on is arguing that pirates are just individualistic anarchists, swashbuckling the seas with limitless individual power and no self-restraint. Rather, the issue is that these internal governance structures flatly ignore the broader rule-of-law principles of thriving democracies and undermine the law in doing so.

After all, it's a rather unremarkable supposition to claim that a group enters a social compact for its own benefit. (See Locke.) But it's how that group treats the rule of law externally that, I think, is far more problematic.
5.18.2009 10:43am
byomtov (mail):
Merevaudevillian is correct.

It is a mistake to equate the sorts of rules that govern criminal groups with laws that govern a larger society consisting of people with vastly different lives.
5.18.2009 10:49am
LarryA (mail) (www):
The issue about a group being "lawless" is not that it is internally lawless; it is that it refuses to acknowledge external laws that would constrain its behavior. No one is arguing that pirates are just individualistic anarchists, swashbuckling the seas with limitless individual power and no self-restraint. Rather, the issue is that these internal governance structures flatly ignore the broader rule-of-law principles of thriving democracies and undermine the law in doing so.
The issue about a group being "lawless" is not that it is internally lawless; it is that it refuses to acknowledge external laws that would constrain its behavior. No one is arguing that pirates citizens of sovereign nations are just individualistic anarchists, swashbuckling the seas with limitless individual power and no self-restraint. Rather, the issue is that these internal governance structures flatly ignore the broader rule-of-law principles of thriving democracies and undermine the law in doing so.

We have an excellent example in North Korea, get pretty close in China, and even the U.S. is often criticized for acting outside the bounds of international law. That's the definition of "sovereign."
5.18.2009 11:02am
KenB (mail):
This "pirate law" yields an interesting insight into how societies organize themselves. Groups cannot be completely lawless for long. They may prey externally, but they can't hold together without internal order.
5.18.2009 11:19am
Jim at FSU (mail):
The pirates don't have to incorporate external notions of law because no one interferes with their activities. Legal rights have to be asserted for them to be meaningful. So long as the merchant lines and insurance companies of the world will disregard the law and peacefully submit to their demands, the pirates need not understand "notions of law" any more than a rat in a lab needs to understand the manufacture of food pellets- he presses a bar and a food pellet always appears- the human society that makes food pellets and refills his hopper every day is irrelevant unless it stops.

The point the original poster is trying to make is that the Somali pirates have formed ad hoc societal institutions to govern their behavior. Such organizing behavior occurs naturally wherever there is economic activity, to preserve its efficiency- even in the absence of government. The above posters seem to forget that Somalis have instituted similar ad-hoc institutions for the non-piratical portions of their society as well.
5.18.2009 11:22am
Houston Lawyer:
A former client of mine was raised in Brooklyn in a mafia area. She said that there was no street crime and the neighborhood was pristine. The mafia took care of anyone who dared to operate independently on their turf in a manner much more effective than law enforcement ever could. As the other posters noted, all successful criminal organizations have some sort of code and the penalties for violating that code are severely enforced. Kind of like the way we treated spies caught in the field in WWII.
5.18.2009 11:26am
Bob VB (mail):
Odd, I'd always heard the pirate code was more of just guidelines...
5.18.2009 11:29am
JRL:
Thank you for this post. It is fascinating to see the actual process of a group of people emerging from a so-called state of nature and forming a compact to govern themselves.
5.18.2009 11:35am
sbron:
They are finally cracking down on 18th century pirates -- here's Captain Morgan busted for DUI.
(Couldn't resist.)
5.18.2009 11:41am
Oren:
Houston Lawyer, organized crime does lead to increased "quality of life" over disorganized crime, but also exacts a much higher societal cost in the form of institutionalized corruption. I've been unable to figure out which arrangement (presuming you can't get rid of both) maximizes social utility. Both certainly have their merits.
5.18.2009 11:45am
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Interesting post. It provides a great deal of food for thought.

I would, however, suggest that all governance originally rises from self-organization, and that we humans, as social animals, set up governing bodies wherever we go. Not only do nations have governing bodies, but so do corporations, families, and informal organizations (whether the Somali pirates open source software engineering networks, etc). Government represents a special case of this organization but it is interesting to see other cases in action.
5.18.2009 11:49am
mcbain (mail):
"The Invisible Hook" is an awesome book title.
5.18.2009 11:50am
merevaudevillian:
The point the original poster is trying to make is that the Somali pirates have formed ad hoc societal institutions to govern their behavior.


So, this is just basically, "Locke for Pirates." Which doesn't seem terribly remarkable.
5.18.2009 11:57am
A. Zarkov (mail):
From radical chic to pirate chic. I see another book coming.

"But times for the Somali pirates, they are a changing."


I have to ask: where does this information on the social organization of Somali pirates come from, and why do you believe it? Look at how easily and thoroughly Margret Mead was taken in. In Coming of Age... she stated that rape was unknown in Samoa. If only she had known the language she could have read rape stories in the local newspaper.

A good scientist, or any good researcher for that matter, is always skeptical about his data. Verify, verify, verify.
5.18.2009 12:00pm
TomH (mail):
Objection, Yarrrr! Methinks the second hand smoke does give me the lung cancer and makes me parrot cough, too!
5.18.2009 12:02pm
Mikee (mail):
Oren, let us know which you choose, organized crime or individual efforts. Although it reads rather oddly that you would publicly post that you are considering one or the other....Perhaps I have misread your comment?

Ahhh, yes, my mistake...

And if you believe that criminal individuals (Somali or otherwise) will obey their internal, self imposed rules because a utilitarian argument demonstrates that it is to their benefit, may I point out that teh Sonmalis apparently have to regularly impose their fines and use immediate murder to keep some semblance of order, even on their small boats with a handful of crew. Or you could just watch reruns of the Sopranos or The Godfather to see how well criminals obey any laws, even their own.

As a final note, why are the pirate court members still breathing, if they are known to exist?
5.18.2009 12:07pm
fishbane (mail):
It is funny to see people try to draw distinctions between different forms of law. The U.S. isn't distinguishable because of some particular inherent superiority; it is different than Somali pirates because it has the bigger guns. (One can argue that it can afford the biggest guns because the set of laws provide a more profitable baseline economy, or some such. That's a different argument.)
5.18.2009 12:28pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
A five percent tax for pointing your gun at someone is just another example of government regulation run amok, interfering with the natural balance imposed by the invisible hand.
5.18.2009 12:30pm
rosetta's stones:
I'm hip, Chico. Those dang Somali pirates better hurry up and join the NRA, before this madness goes any further.
5.18.2009 12:51pm
Oren:

Oren, let us know which you choose, organized crime or individual efforts. Although it reads rather oddly that you would publicly post that you are considering one or the other....Perhaps I have misread your comment?

I'm considering whether well-rooted organized crime that imposes large social costs and institutionalized corruption but kept the streets clear of common criminals is a net societal benefit or detriment. A shopkeeper might quite rationally prefer to pay $XXX monthly to the mob than deal with common criminals if the cost of dealing with those criminals (whose MO means they do far more damage than they extract in utility) exceeds $XXX. A community might prefer getting squeezed by the mob on corrupt public construction contracts over having muggers on the streets (one thing the mob excels at removing).

That's not to say that either of them are acceptable in a moral sense or desirable in a perfect world, but I'm asking about the lesser of two evils here.
5.18.2009 12:52pm
gasman (mail):
We haven't been able to kick somali pirate ass because of the uncertain status of their rights.

Good. They are forming a quasi-state. Recognize them as a state, and as the first diplomatic act deliver a declaration of war and kick their butts back to the 18th century.
5.18.2009 12:56pm
whit:
"to live outside the law, you must be honest" Bob Dylan
5.18.2009 1:17pm
DennisN (mail):
Actually, we've been unable to kick Somali pirate ass because it is more expensive to do so than to not. It's cheaper to play Pirate Roulette.
5.18.2009 1:21pm
Drolz:
On the organized/unorganized crime topic, it seems to me that while organized crime might pose a higher economic cost to society in terms of systemic corruption, it might lower "unacceptable" costs to individuals. For instance, the money a shopkeeper pays to a protection racket and incidental costs resulting from corruption might exceed what he would lose to robberies, but (assuming a very well functioning protection racket) he avoids the risk of being killed during one of those robberies, which is a trade off I'm sure many would make.
5.18.2009 2:06pm
Gray Ghost (mail):
"Modern pirating vessels, in contrast, are metal, and aren't carrying gunpowder. One pirate's smoking behavior poses a much smaller risk to the rest of the crew. And on land, where modern pirates spend the majority of their time together, smoking presents no such risk to others. Somali pirates, then, don't need to create rules governing tobacco use in their society; so they don't."

Or maybe they don't need to create additional rules to prohibit smoking because it's already considered prohibited by many Islamic authorities?

GG
5.18.2009 2:34pm
Ben P:

I'm considering whether well-rooted organized crime that imposes large social costs and institutionalized corruption but kept the streets clear of common criminals is a net societal benefit or detriment. A shopkeeper might quite rationally prefer to pay $XXX monthly to the mob than deal with common criminals if the cost of dealing with those criminals (whose MO means they do far more damage than they extract in utility) exceeds $XXX. A community might prefer getting squeezed by the mob on corrupt public construction contracts over having muggers on the streets (one thing the mob excels at removing).


Actually, now that I write this I can't recall which side you argued at the time, but this is reminiscent of the debates during the Maersk Alabama piracy incident regarding ship owners that find it more efficient to pay ransoms than protect ships.
5.18.2009 2:51pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
If the government doesn't exist in a certain area, organized "crime" fills in any gaps that aren't legal for private industry to fill. This is why you see mafia/tong/triad law enforcement in immigrant communities. Immigrants don't get along well with the official law enforcement (for language and cultural reasons) and since providing such services is illegal for non-government entities, quasi-criminals do it.

It isn't that people are choosing between government and mafia, they're choosing between a neglectful or hostile government and an ad hoc government that works. The mere fact of illegality isn't necessarily representative of lower quality service. It just means that there's a pocket of people that aren't properly incorporated into the local official government. The map boundaries don't reflect the reality on the ground.

All the anecdotes are illuminating the same fundamental truth- when governments cease to function, people create new ones to fill in the gaps.

The problem with democracy I'm noticing is that while the leaders of these ad hoc quasi-governmental institutions can eventually become leaders of official governmental institutions, the efficient working structure of the ad hoc institutions doesn't follow them. Both the official and the ad hoc structures remain in place and instead of an inefficient institution being replaced by an efficient institution, you get the corruption of the ad hoc institutions combined with the inefficiency of the decaying official ones.

While the government protects itself from insurrectionary behavior by co-opting upstart political leaders, the end result is a sick government that eventually collapses under the weight of its own inefficiency.
5.18.2009 2:59pm
PQuincy1:

The U.S. isn't distinguishable because of some particular inherent superiority; it is different than Somali pirates because it has the bigger guns.


I beg to disagree. At least since the late 16th century, states (including the US) have claimed sovereignty, that is, universal jurisdiction in a given territory. Within a sovereign territory, people are not free to set up private justice systems of any kind with the state's acceptance (since state courts could always overrule the decisions of any private court, otherwise), and certainly not free to set up private organizations that systematically break the laws of the state (organized crime).

The Somali pirates, though they do exist in a condition without sovereignty, do not appear to make any universal claims: they have a self-disciplining mechanism, not a mechanism for universal discipline (based on universal jurisdiction).

I'm fully aware of how problematic the concept of sovereignty is, but one can't simply wish it away. Moreover, before the 16th century, other systems of universal jurisdiction applied (essentially the Augustinian theory of Christian Empire), though by the 15th century these had become so attenuated in much of Western Europe that private-law regimes emerged (e.g. Schiedsgerichtbarkeit in much of Germany, or the infamous Vehmic courts (Fehmgerichte, however mythical).
5.18.2009 3:00pm
not David Post:
Jefferson is alive and well in Somalia?

Yes, and you can read all about it in my upcoming book, "In Search of Jefferson al-Moussa".
5.18.2009 3:50pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
A community might prefer getting squeezed by the mob on corrupt public construction contracts over having muggers on the streets (one thing the mob excels at removing).
A community might rationally prefer getting squeezed by the mob over getting squeezed by an elected government which is not only just as corrupt, but also incompetent at keeping muggers off the streets. See Washington, D.C.
5.18.2009 4:27pm
whit:

A former c lient of mine was raised in Brooklyn in a mafia area. She said that there was no street crime and the neighborhood was pristine. The mafia took care of anyone who dared to operate independently on their turf in a manner much more effective than law enforcement ever could


absolutely. i am familiar with one area within boston where the same applies. muggers, etc. don't dare attack a woman walking alone at 2 am because they FEAR the mafia. they fear them a hell of a lot more than they fear the cops. the mafia simply will not stand for street crime, especially against women, in their neighborhoods, and thugs simply don't even consider it.
5.18.2009 4:29pm
JRL:
not David Post wins this thread.
5.18.2009 4:35pm
Crackmonkeyjr (www):
This is why I have a deep dislike of "anarchists." It is entirely untenable in the real world and falls apart almost immediately. Power abhors a vacuum and any group of people who interact for any meaningful period of time will quickly form some sort of government. Based on how this pirate culture seems to be developing, it may even be a good thing to let it run its course. It seems like it may solve many of Somalia's problems by providing it with a government.

Also, there is a great libertarian video called "Pirates and Emperors" that basically puts this discussion in the form of a "School House Rocks" video.
5.18.2009 4:58pm
Crackmonkeyjr (www):
Oh, the video can be found at http://www.piratesandemperors.com/
5.18.2009 4:59pm
Fub:
whit wrote at 5.18.2009 4:29pm:
absolutely. i am familiar with one area within boston where the same applies. muggers, etc. don't dare attack a woman walking alone at 2 am because they FEAR the mafia. they fear them a hell of a lot more than they fear the cops.
Agreed.

At risk of drifting the thread here, but I've heard that Islamist terrorists (in the Mid-East, not Soviet satellite countries) didn't make many attacks on (Soviet) Russian people a few years ago. Seems the Soviets would respond by tracking down anybody and everybody connected with the attack, and send their heads in boxes to their families -- if they didn't just take out their families instead.
5.18.2009 5:03pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Crackmonkeyjr,

except you are a bit confused. Pete is (at least sympathetically close to) anarchist; and that video is not really libertarian (it is "Inspired by the writings of Noam Chomsky.").

The difference: libertarians and true anarchists favor private and competitive solutions, socialists and Chomsky-ites prefer the government that they like, and prefer to give it as much power as possible so that it can do what they want it to.
5.18.2009 5:44pm
ohwilleke:
Prohibition era gangsters had a quite, dare I call it "civilized" governance system, with aspects of federalism or feudalism as your perspective dictates, thrown in.
5.18.2009 5:46pm
csloan999:
The real lesson here is that the pirates ultimately FAILED. That tells you all you need to know about the need for a formal government.
5.18.2009 11:07pm
Brer (mail):
@PQuincy1

The problem with your objection is that the only thing in real-world terms that guarantees the sovereignty of states is their ability to use force (the "bigger guns" alluded to by fishbane) against attempts to establish competing social and/or legal structures within their territory by dissenting minorities (even in cases where the minority forms a -local- majority). I happen to like the idea of a loose system of government where smaller and more local sub-units can reserve the right to vote themselves out, but as a practical matter that's not a right that ANY sovereign state recognizes for fear of ceasing to BE sovereign. In any case, my point is that when you get right down to it, there is no practical difference between the international legal construct of sovereignty and the practical reality of having the biggest guns and the best trained people to use them in a given geographical area.
5.19.2009 3:50am

Post as: [Register] [Log In]

Account:
Password:
Remember info?

If you have a comment about spelling, typos, or format errors, please e-mail the poster directly rather than posting a comment.

Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.