Forget the Peg Legs and Parrots, These Pirates Mean Business

Posted: June 22, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:38 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Economist Peter Leeson. Photo courtesy of Peter Leeson

Economist Peter Leeson. Photo courtesy of Peter Leeson

When the Leesons took their 8-year-old son Peter to Disney World, they could not have anticipated that his experience with the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would lead years later to a research project and book.

In his book, “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” (Princeton University Press, May 2009), Mason economist Peter T. Leeson, MA, PhD Economics ’05, looks at legendary pirate captains such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackam. He found that pirates’ search for plunder led them to pioneer forward-thinking practices, such as workers’ compensation and branding.

Leeson writes: “Peg legs and parrots aside, in the end, piracy was a business.”

Leeson is BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at Mason’s Mercatus Center and associate editor of the Review of Austrian Economics. A former visiting fellow at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, he blogs regularly at The Austrian Economists, found at

How many years have you been studying pirates?

If you’re willing to count my time on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World as research, I began studying pirates when I was 8. Academically, I’ve been studying pirates for several years.

Was the research daunting? Did pirates keep decent records?

The research was probably the most academic fun I’ve ever had. Few pirates kept records themselves, but their contemporaries wrote a good deal about them, which is where most of our knowledge about pirates comes from.

treasurechestWhat did you learn that surprised you the most?

I was surprised to learn that the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull and crossbones on it, was a genuine and important part of pirate history. I was also surprised to learn that perhaps as much as a third of the average early 18th-century pirate crew was black.

This isn’t the only unusual topic where you have applied your analysis. I know you’ve blogged about Big Foot. What other areas interest you?

My research “MO” involves pursuing everything and anything I find interesting – from UFOs and Bigfoot sightings to pirates. I’m especially interested in how individuals create social order under anarchy. Since functional government is a relatively recent invention, I often find myself investigating how individuals pursued social order historically.

For those who didn’t see the articles about you in Publishers Weekly and the Chronicle of Higher Education, you proposed to your girlfriend Ania in the dedication. When did you decide to do this? Have you two set a date? Is she an economist?

I decided to propose to Ania in the dedication just a few weeks after I agreed to write the book. We haven’t set a firm date yet, though next spring is likely. Ania is an architect . . . I won’t tell her you thought she might be an economist.

What are you working on now?

Three main projects have my attention at the moment. One examines the industrial organization of organized crime. [Mason economics graduate student] Doug Rogers and I consider the economic organization of the Sicilian Mafia and Caribbean pirates. Another considers law and economics of the medieval judicial ordeal (trial by water and fire, and such). This is part of a broader research agenda I have that investigates the economics of superstition. Finally, I’m working on a new book that explores the economics of anarchy in our everyday lives.

Do you have a pirate outfit?

I do have a pirate outfit. In fact, I donned it [recently] at a pirate party. The outfit is highly absurd and thus highly enjoyable.

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