The Political Economy of Treasure Island

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It
is unlikely that any amount of future historical research will prove
that Robert Lewis Stevenson (1850–1894) and Carl Menger (1840–1921)
were the same person. Few would credit a claim that the gifted Scottish
writer dwelled in the same body as his Austrian contemporary, a
man who (coincidentally with Stanly Jevons and Leon Walras) participated
in a scientific revolution which implied that an economy must be
based on human evaluations rather than the qualities of things.
However if by some chance it were so, and we could secretly behold
the metamorphosis of the economist into the redactor of Treasure
Island
, then we might spy, not a nocturnal Jekyll to Hyde
inversion of character, but Jekyll himself moonlighting under a
nom de plume. Indeed, the kind of people who recognize that
other juvenile classics, ranging from the Hobbit
to the Wizard
of Oz
, contain moral and even economic parables will quickly
grasp the economic secret of Treasure Island, a secret concealed,
as is often the case with the most ingenious secrets, in broad daylight.
And anyone who has already embarked on Stevenson's masterpiece of
adventure will have found that it contains a treasure haul of insight
into human nature and only a little further reflection will be capable
of extending this into political economy as well, making the story
even more subversive of today's democratic shibboleths than a mutiny
at sea.

Whether
Treasure Island is even juvenilia by today's standards is
debatable. Its language is too crisp and sophisticated for a progressive
reader (in either the political or the pedagogical sense) and more
importantly, its narrative is too deeply subjective to appeal to
those, either young or old, who glean for no more than action and
plot. It is easy to recognize the multi-perspective structure of
the narrative in the candid musings of Jim Hawkins which alternate
with the clinical observations of Dr. Livesey, a technique which,
for a 19th century work, must have seemed daringly experimental.
For while Stevenson was best known as a traveler, whether on donkey
in France or schooner to the South seas, his deepest explorations
were into the opaque recesses of the human soul. However to go further
and say that the literary subjectivism of Stevenson's fictional
world reflects the zeitgeist of a near-contemporary economic revolution
is a bridge at which many a mental burro will baulk. But then the
mental donkeys that carry around our common sense notions always
tend to get vertigo as soon as they approach a bridge which spans
the divide between the way things appear and the way they really
are, which is why Carl Menger might very well have considered encrypting
the simple, but counterintuitive, truths of subjectivist economics
in the vehicle of light fiction.

Yet even if
I were wrong and Treasure Island had nothing to teach us
about either economics or politics, it would still be a mighty fine
tale. It is struggle of good and evil, and by modern standards it
is that, not any lack of literary subtlety, which consigns it to
the nursery. It offends the demoralizing sensibilities which prompted
early 20th century critics, in and out of Bloomsbury,
to eliminate Stevenson from the canon of serious literature. And
of course, from their perspective, it was the right thing to do
since there is much which smacks of prejudice in Treasure Island,
a place where we find ourselves in a simpler world, one where the
reader, given a few moral clues, can instantly grasp the distinction
between a gentleman and a damned and dirty dog overripe for chastisement
by his betters. No doubt there is some deficiency in this gentleman-bites-dog
world view, but today any adequate criticism of the Manichean mentality
which lies at the root of the matter would likely be forestalled
by the preemptory intervention of the ASPCA. In the meantime perhaps
the most prudent course of action is, alas, to remove Treasure
Island from the children's book shelf and to place it high,
out of reach, and in a brown paper wrapper.

Considering
its scandalous nature, is it really so difficult to imagine that
Stevenson has buried a wealth of information about the allegedly
dismal science in his little masterpiece? Our suspicions would be
aroused even if we knew no more about the author than his title.
As it happens, we can guess that Stevenson was both a romantic
and a hard-money man…ahem, that he and his wife Fanny were hard
money persons, from the fact that they spent their honeymoon shivering
in their long johns camped out in a California silver mine. And
surely titles, not to mention names of leading characters, can hardly
be coincidental.

No one, to
be sure, could possibly deny that Treasure Island is shot
through with a variety of economic exchange from beginning to end.
Hardly have we turned the first page when we are greeted by the
unsavory, but hardly impecunious, character of Billy Bones who arrives
at the Admiral Benbow Inn, and announces his intention to be fed,
liquored, and sheltered with a flurry of transactional bravado:

…and he
threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. "You
can tell me when I've worked through that," said he, looking
as fierce as a commander.

What volumes
might not be written just to tease out the economic assumptions
that are concealed behind those few lines! Notions of debit, credit
and the discount on future goods and services lurk here, barely
visible behind the deceptive simplicity of Bones' words, much as
the abiding trust in the fiduciary medium employed shines through
the ugly patina of the character who employs it. Indeed, from the
outset of our inquiry even the dullest of our mental donkeys will
have to recognize that Treasure Island is, among other things,
an encomium to the faith human beings have traditionally put in
hard money, even when they have had scarce reason to trust its bearers.

Indeed if
Treasure Island, considered as an economic text, has a fault
it is the scant attention it pays to paper money. There is nary
a banknote or a bond in the entire tale, nor is anything but silver
and gold ever given in credit excepting only those circumstances
where the characters of the story are reduced to barter. This is
no great disadvantage for us, we who are reading for no more than
economic and political edification in Stevenson's classic, however
it may have been a serious encumbrance for the worthy but worried
Mrs. Hawkins, forced as she was to grapple, unassisted, with the
thorny issues of bimetallism in the wake of Billy Bones’ subsequent
demise. To collect her rent due from the remains of the dead man
she must count out a motley collection of coins including gold guineas
and silver "pieces of eight" i.e., Spanish dollars. Not
knowing the precise exchange rate of gold to silver, and confused
by foreign denominations, she confines herself to guineas, not because
they are gold but because of the calculatory convenience of a monometallic
standard. In the meantime the threatening pirates are fast approaching
the Inn. Jim Hawkins relates,

But my mother,
frightened as she was, would not consent to take a fraction more
than was due to her, and was obstinately unwilling to be content
with less…she knew her rights and she would have them; and she
was still arguing with me, when a little low whistle sounded a
good way off upon the hill. That was enough, and more than enough,
for both of us.

"I'll
Take what I have," she said, jumping to her feet.

"And
I'll take this to square the count," said I, picking up the
oilskin packet.

This u2018obstinate
honesty' is a characteristic of societies where contract is honored,
including the implicit social contract which says money has a constant,
or near constant value. Indeed, one wonders if even the proverbial
honesty of Mrs. Hawkins would have survived habituation to the inflationary
standards of the assignats or continentals which were to make their
appearance only a few decades after the years in which Stevenson
sets his story. One further wonders if the stark moral dualism that
we find so quaint in light romantic literature is not a souvenir
of economic history, in so far as we moderns have lost our moral
compass, fowled in a Sargasso sea of fraud, inflation, and tax-code
abetted legerdemain. In a hard money world moral distinctions would
have been harder as well, and it would have been easier than today
to separate people into the u2018Billy Bones' and the u2018Mrs. Hawkins'
categories. Much more could be said about the way that money is
used in this tale, and not just by Billy Bones or Mrs. Hawkins…but
this might risk embroiling ourselves in currency questions of the
18th century, in short, the fine branches of political
economy.

X Marks
The Spot

Instead we
want to go to the trunk of the matter, not the dead men's trunk
of the mutineers but the living trunk of purposeful human action
which underlies all political economy. Therefore we must start at
the end, at that point where the treasure has at last been discovered,
and work our way back towards the beginning. For like any good story
Treasure Island is teleological…which is just a fancy way
of saying that the head and the tail of the tale are connected.
It is a story about purposive action, and everybody in the story
is pursuing a common end, namely the treasure itself. This is the
bare skeleton on which the narrative hangs, and it makes no claims
as to the goodness or badness of the characters themselves, the
state of their knowledge or the means they employ to attain the
end, only that they all act and compete in a way that is mutually
intelligible. Like with most good tales (even mysteries) we know
how things will end up before we even crack the book, so we are
hardly surprised when we at long last find ourselves in Ben Gunn's
cave with Jim Hawkins who describes himself as looking down in satisfaction
at the treasure…

…I think
I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French,
Spanish, Portugese, Georges, Louises, doubloons, and double guineas
and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe
for the last hundred years, strange oriental pieces stamped with
what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider's web, round
pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle,
as if to wear them round your neck — nearly every variety of money
in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection;
and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that
my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.

Just like
Jim Hawkins any child, or even an older reader with an interest
in curios, will get a great deal of pleasure in sorting through
the numismatic details of this paragraph, and I won’t spoil the
fun by giving out details which can be easily researched in your
local library or hobby shop. But to the eyes of an economic historian
there is a bitter nostalgia in the account, for Stevenson has set
his tale in an era when money circulated on the basis of its metallic
value in contrast to the token coinage of today. The "pictures
of all the kings of Europe" was nothing but a guarantee of
the weight of the metal, a convenience to obviate constant reweighing,
and added nothing to the value of the coins at the time. And while
it would be wrong to attribute to the curmudgeon-like characters
of Treasure Island an enthusiasm for internationalism, it
remains true that, in terms of monetary affairs, the globe had not
yet been divided into currency blocks or hemmed in by exchange controls.
In that sense, it was still one world.

So much for
numismatics, what of political economy? Why do all the characters
in this story seek the treasure, a premise that we as readers never
question, although we smile at Ben Gunn when he chortles to Jim
Hawkins, "I'm rich!" In truth, the treasure is perfectly
useless on the island, except as costume jewelry, or rather buttons
on Ben Gunn's rags. Moreover Gunn is no Crusoe, the latter so beloved
of neoclassical economists for his ability to work raw materials
into useful objects. Yet to be sure he is just as cunning, if not
more so, than his literary predecessor. This is possible since Gunn's
island is haunted, unlike Crusoe's, by the specter of the world
economy…and thus the prospect of Gunn redeeming the heavy metallic
objects which he has removed to his cave allows them to take on
a more than ornamental value. To be sure it could all have turned
out quite differently, say if the Hispaniola had been lost
and all were marooned with Ben Gunn. In that case some medium (or
media) of exchange might have arisen from a class of objects which
was both scarce and valued. Undoubtedly Ben Gunn would have been
willing to exchange gold for cheese, the pirates would have been
willing to exchange cheese for rum, and the party of Captain Smollet
would be willing to exchange Dr. Livesey's materia medica for weapons.
In other worlds, the starting point for an autonomous island economy
would have been barter, a system that we can see beginning to develop
in that frantic period when it is not at all clear that escape from
the island is even possible. Having said all that, it is not entirely
impossible that the marooned islanders might have returned to the
gold standard in due time!

How could
this be possible when it is clear that the treasure is no more than
a collection of worthless baubles? To see how it might happen we
have to acquire a "marginalist insight" and this is the
first of those donkey-bridges at which our common sense gets instant
mental acrophobia. To accrue this insight from the very beginning
we must accustom ourselves to the point of view of a person who
is initiating an exchange and focus on what they are willing to
give up and only afterwards on what they hope to gain. Of course
the person will only be willing to exchange something that they
value less for something they value more. More importantly, they
will only exchange "at the margin"…that is, they will
try to exchange a thing in their inventory which is of less value
rather than greater value, as ranked in terms of their subjective
priorities. Ben Gunn wants cheese, not gold. If he has by some great
fortune come into a "bit of cheese"…say a gift from Jim
Hawkins, or if he has gone to the trouble of producing it from goat's
milk, he will not be quick to part with it. On the other hand he
has a vast amount of gold, and it is precisely because gold is of
little use to him that he is likely to offer a large amount of it
for some more desired item. In fact, this is precisely what happens
in the end, when he exchanges all of it for the cheese, a return
trip to England, and a small share in the salvage proceeds. We can
imagine the pirates and Captain Smollett's party in the same situation,
valuing medical and food supplies over gold, with the result of
the former being pushed out of circulation by the latter. All this
is speculative of course, and there are some reasons to doubt the
return to such a grossly inflated standard…for once Gunn's stash
began to circulate freely, a single musket or bottle of rum would
have gone for hundreds of golden Guineas or thousands of pounds
sterling. Perhaps something else would have eventually turned out
to be the media of exchange, say cured goat meat or bolts of sailcloth,
however anthropological records of islands where ornamental objects
did in fact constitute the local exchange (kula items, cowries etc.)
indicate that the eventual remonetization of Ben Gunn's treasure
is not entirely beyond the pale of possibility.

The subjectivity
of the book is not the subjectivity of magic or desire, but rather
finds itself expressed in action and choice. To be sure Ben Gunn
craves cheese, the pirates lust for rum, and everybody longs for
gold, but these primordial facts in and of themselves do not suffice
to coordinate any action, let alone make a story, since they are
constantly in flux and incommensurable.

It is only
when the pirates, who epitomize desire and what economists call
high time preference, are able to set aside their quarrels and delegate
planning to their agent, Long John Silver, that they become, if
not formidable, at least a force. Their pathos, trapped in this
gentleman-bites-dog world which is largely of the dogs' own making,
might have aroused the sympathy of a romantic (and vaguely leftish)
writer such as Hugo, but the more sanguine Stevenson seems to shrug
off their fate as fortunes of war.

In the act
of barter which occurs at the climax of the story, Jim Hawkins relates,

And he [Long
John Silver] cast down upon the floor a paper that I instantly
recognized — none other than the chart on yellow paper, with the
three red crosses, that I had found in the oil-cloth at the bottom
of the captain's chest. Why the doctor had given it to him was
more than I could fancy.

What has transpired
is the exchange of the treasure map for a safe conduct pass out
of the blockhouse for Captain Smollett's party. The outcome of the
story hinges on this simple transaction. Yet it is unclear, and
not just to Jim Hawkins, why this transaction has been made. All
we know is that at the precise moment of the exchange, the treasure
map was of less value for the Captain's party than escaping from
the blockhouse, and from the point of view of Silver letting the
loyalists escape was of less moment than getting the treasure map.
Beyond that, things are pretty murky, since nobody has perfect information,
either about conditions on the island or the contents of one another's
minds. Even if someone had the omniscience which narrators provide
in certain kinds of fiction, in other words the sort of narrator
who is so conspicuously absent in Stevenson's adventure, it would
be of little use in fixing exchange rates based on supposed wants,
since these are in a continual state of flux. Silver points this
out contemptuously to his own men, noting that their own standards
of just barter swings back and forth depending on the ever changing
state of their health, sobriety, and courage.

X marks the
spot: This is where demand and supply meet. All the psychological
elements which went up to make the decision are as dead as Schrdinger's
cat…or rather, since we are back in the pre-quantum world of the
18th century, the ghost of old Flint.

In Stevenson's
work we only know Long John Silver through the observations and
inferences of Jim Hawkins. Apart from that, nearly everyone today
knows him as a stock character in Hollywood movies, growing ever
more genial and even mentoring in his relation to Jim through countless
remakes. However there is nothing in Stevenson's book to justify
this sympathetic treatment of Silver, and in the end Hawkins himself
concludes that the man is utterly and irredeemably wicked. Indeed,
Silver, once we understand his nature, is a frightening character…much
more frightening than his lieutenant Israel Hands, who has all the
refreshing candor of a neoconservative think-tanker just out graduated
from political science with a major in Machiavelli. Hands relates
to Jim Hawkins that…

For thirty
year…I've sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better or worse,
fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and
what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o'goodness
yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don't bite; them's
my views — amen, so be it.

One can imagine
Hands’ captain having spoken exactly the same words on a suitable
occasion, differing only in Silver's repertoire not being limited
to such naked professions of the true piratical faith. Rather, Silver's
primary weapon is a capacity for deceit…a knack at stringing people
along in a deal until it is to his advantage to break it.

The Dead
Man's Chest

In one
respect Silver is more akin to his antagonists Captain Smollett,
Squire Trelawney, and Doctor Livesey than any of his fellow conspirators…in
common with the former and in contrast to the latter he has relatively
low time preference. Time preference is the economic concept akin
to such more psychological oriented notions as planning, foresight,
and gratification…all of which vary from person to person in so
far as they may place higher or lower value on present versus future
satisfaction. Although we can't see into Silver's mind we have pretty
good indications that his time preference is quite low by typical
pirate standards. Not only is he capable of the premeditation which
goes into planning the mutiny, but we have more measurable accounts
of his relatively low demand for present satisfaction since he has
saved his proceeds from two previous piratical campaigns and this
is his third (and allegedly last) trip out, to cash in on the remainder
of his u2018deposit' by way of his former captain, Flint. Only a small
hard core of his fellow co-conspirators aboard the Hispaniola
are veterans of Flint's crew, the majority of whom have managed
to kill themselves off with rum or in brawls. Even this remnant,
with the exception of Silver, seems to have started this last voyage
from scratch, financially speaking.

This leaves
one more survivor of Flint's crew, Ben Gunn, and unfortunately he
is no exception to the prevailing high time-preference among his
former mates. For when he returns to civilization we are able to
get a reasonably good measure of his propensities, courtesy of Jim
Hawkins.

As for Ben
Gunn, he got a thousand pounds, which he spent or lost in three
weeks, or, to be more exact, in nineteen days, for he was back
begging on the twentieth.

This, by
the way, should send a shiver of collective apprehension down our
spines, we readers who have taken Treasure Island to be our
vade mecum in political economy. And this not merely on account
of any sympathy that we may have for u2018poor Ben Gunn' but because
our mental donkeys are again digging in their hoofs, as they correctly
sense the approach of another vertigo-inducing bridge into the world
of economics.

Now one of
the postulates of economics is that time preference varies inversely
with wealth. People with little wealth will tend to have high time
preference, and people with much wealth will have low time preference.
We can see an illustration of this in the case of Long John Silver,
who is both the richest of the pirates at the outset of the Hispaniola's
voyage, and also has the lowest time preference. For simplicity's
sake we can imagine a person's time preference as a negatively sloping
curve running down from right to left, with the vertical axis representing
assets.

But not so
fast me hardies! Are we really sure about this? Doesn't common sense
and experience tell us that the precise opposite is the case, and
that the slope of the curve should be positive, varying directly
with wealth? If we are in straightened circumstances will we not
pinch our pennies, while we will splurge if we get some windfall
gain? If we see Ben Gunn's thousand pounds as a windfall then, to
be sure, he seems to have been ruined by wealth. In the end he becomes
an almsman, whose only consolation is singing in the chapel choir
on Sundays. Moreover, we can imagine itinerant Wesleyan preachers
turning Ben Gunn's sad story into a homily on the corruption of
a man who was virtuous when he was living under conditions of enforced
austerity but fell amongst rum, strumpets, and of course, cheese.
From there the edifying tale might have made its way into the doctrines
of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and then to all later generations of survivalists,
primitivists, and back-to-nature enthusiasts. Ben Gunn: the man
who was ruined by money and civilization.

However this
is not the story as Stevenson has written it. Ben Gunn, it is clear,
is the same man from beginning to end. His demise is not the result
of going from literal rags to riches…but latent in his character.
In fact, in the interests of saving the theorem that wealth and
time-preference are inversely related, one could make a credible
case for Ben Gunn suffering a loss when he left the island! After
all he was (considerations of the treasure aside) the sole freeholder
of the place. But this is rather factitious, since we have no way
of calculating, in a monetary sense, the value of his estate during
the time when there was no exchange on the island and when the treasure
was demonetized. All we know is that he was anxious to leave and
that he was willing to exchange both his real estate and the entire
treasure for a trip back to Bristol and a thousand pounds sterling.
But this is just barter, and all it means is that, in Ben Gunn's
scale of value cheese in Bristol would be preferable to goat's meat
on the island.

The real reason
why Ben Gunn lost his fortune on his return to England is that,
in returning to a world of exchange, and monetized exchange at that,
he entered an environment where his assets became liquid. In a world
of debtors and creditors his time preference became manifest. Thus,
preferring cheese now to returns from investment over a period of
time, he squandered his wealth. The man was clearly voracious…although
we can leave it to the economic historians to divide a thousand
pounds sterling by the price of cheese in the 1760's over a period
of precisely nineteen days!

However there
is some terrible incongruity in all this, the demise of the character
who elsewhere, albeit with a touch of irony, is described by Jim
Hawkins as the u2018hero' of the tale. Was he not the stand-in for the
hardy and resourceful Robinson Crusoe? And if he really demonstrated
such high time preference on his return to England, how can we suspend
our belief in the consistency of human nature long enough to permit
him to go fishing, hunt goats, cure their meat, mend clothing, and
build a coracle, not to mention finding, unearthing, and transporting
a weighty fortune a considerable distance in anticipation of the
eventual return of Flint or some other adventurer? These are all
activities which require considerable foresight and planning.

However none
of these activities, energetic though they might be, necessarily
indicate low time preference. Rather, knowing what we do from Stevenson's
description of Ben Gunn, we can best see his behavior as kind of
gambling. Now gambling, as opposed to investment, is a high time
preference activity, the idea being to win as big as possible as
soon as possible. We needn't doubt that every day Gunn has woken
up in hopes of a sail on the horizon, seeking to make a bargain
with Flint's gold. In this respect he differs from the genuinely
low time preference Crusoe, who is bent on improving his homestead,
not winning a jackpot. Once we cease to conflate gambling with investment,
many things, previously obscure, become clear…not the least of them
the mysterious ability of Gunn to waste his fortune in nineteen
days…given that is, the finite capacity of the human organism to
metabolize cheese.

In short,
it wasn't civilization which ruined Ben Gunn, but high time preference.
In saying that we are simply noting that Stevenson, the consummate
psychologist, was too astute to psychologize ethics or ethicize
political economy. When we say that Ben Gunn was ruined we only
mean that he was ruined financially, not morally. To be sure there
is some connection between his ability to make a livelihood and
his ethics, but it is a very ambiguous one. All in all, we are left
at the end of the story with the impression that old Ben is a rather
harmless and well-meaning person. And here we come to the last and
most perilous donkey-bridge of all, the relationship of ethics to
economics, for it must be clarified that there is no direct correlation
between time preference level on the one hand and morality on the
other. None the less, time preference and ethics interact in subtle
and at times perilous ways…never more so than in Treasure Island.

On the other
hand, what is it which gives Silver his fiendish power but an ability
to see a bit farther into the future than his cutthroat followers?
Certainly, being a cripple, he is not stronger than they are physically,
and his assets in England, though they attest to his relative low
time preference profile, give him no immediate leverage over his
fellow mutineers. He is a long-range planner, and in that sense
is the peer or even the superior, to Squire Trelawney. They are
both entrepreneurs, or to use the 18th century expression
for "entrepreneur" which seems to suit Silver much better
than Trelawney: undertakers. Moreover they differ not in their undertaking,
which is to find the treasure, but in how they undertake it. Trelawney
undertakes the treasure-hunt by hiring with his money the capital
and labor which are necessary for the enterprise: a ship, a crew,
and a captain. In short, his rights and the rights of the people
whom he has dealings with are based on contract.

In a sense,
Silver's enterprise is also based on contract, but a very different
sort of contract. For while Trelawney's contracting is based on
the anterior cultural and contractual disposition of people and
goods in society, Silver's contracting emerges out of a state of
nature. There is something Promethean and awe-inspiring about this
bold compact, and if it didn't involve so much violence we would
almost be moved to salute the success of Silver's venture. After
all, to the best of my knowledge nobody has named a successful fast-food
chain after Squire Trelawney! Is this because we "liberals"
(or as long as the story takes place in the 18th century
let's call ourselves Whigs) relish the presumptive fairness of the
"equal shares all around" and "everyone a boss"
principles? Perhaps, but even in our deepest Whigish deliria we
remain dimly aware that not everyone can be boss, and that somehow
Long John Silver is a bit less equal than all the others…a sort
of boss of bosses.

This is a
neat trick for a non-navigator with one leg and a parrot on his
back, but hardly an original one, since according to Stevenson
the constitution of pirate societies followed an unvarying pattern,
on Flint's ship no less than the Hispaniola. Long John Silver
had never been anything but a quartermaster on Flint's ship, but
one can imagine, since Billy Bones profited from the same office,
that this was one of the more politically powerful positions on
board. Indeed, these pirate ships are the spitting images of Athenian
democracies, and endowed with more petty offices than a town meeting
in old New England. From time to time bloody revolution was in order
but a less sanguinary method of instituting reform was to summon
a council (the "Black Spot") and vote for a new captain.
Popularity, not navigational or even military skill, ruled the day.

However there
were two skills that were absolutely essential for the person who
whished to rise to supreme power under such a constitution, namely
the ability to make promises and then to break them with impunity.
It is precisely these two skills which Long John Silver has honed
to perfection. On the island he is able to count on the high time
preference of his crew to keep them directed, or rather misdirected,
towards satisfaction within the shortest possible time frame. He
is able to count on the fact that not only the pirate's physical
constitutions, which crave rum, inhibit long-term planning, but
that high time preference is built into the very fabric of their
political constitution as well.

The most sinister
element of this piratical commonwealth is the fact that it is based
on equal shares in a venture which speculates on the recovery of
a fixed sum at an unknown future time. Under these conditions it
is to the advantage of each party to the contract, baring the need
for assistance, for the number of fractional shares to be fewer
rather than greater. Again, like Ben Gunn, they are gamblers rather
than investors. Of course the quest for the treasure could be undertaken,
la Squire Trelawney, as a matter of investment. However, knowing
as we do that pirates are high time preference beings, they do not
invest but rather borrow, or rather steal, capital from Squire Trelawney
in order to accomplish their hunt. On the other hand they increase
their individual shares of the final amount through various forms
of ostracism. Most blatantly these include execution or marooning
after having been served the "Black Spot"…but there are
more indirect forms of attrition such as accident and death in combat.
In the case of Silver, as with Flint, there are dark hints in the
story that much of this supposedly "accidental" attrition
is the result of premeditation. Whatever the truth of the matter,
Silver is the only one of the pirates who, at the end, escapes both
death and marooning…not to mention making off with a tidy portion
of the fortune! The constant refrain of the mutineers, "the
ship went out with seventy-five, and only one came back alive"
is more than just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is a necessary
consequence of the political system which they have contracted into.

One suspects
that Stevenson's setting the story in the 18th century
is more than an allusion to the heyday of piracy in the Caribbean.
It was also a watershed in political economy and the development
of the Whig conception of politics. Although my whimsical conjecture
that Stevenson himself might have been the creation of Carl Menger
is unlikely to stand the light of historical criticism, it is no
accident that the former sets his tale in the age of Richard Cantillon
(1680–1734), David Hume (1711–1776), and Adam Smith (1723–1790),
who were not only participants in the politics of their century
but critics of it as well. Stevenson, in his day, already had time
to learn from some of the more crude misunderstandings of the Enlightenment,
but the donkey mind of our common sense notions and our lingering
Whig consciences may be unable to follow the grown over trail that
he has laid out towards the fortune of political economy. Repelled
by the Tory bigotry of Trelawney we are still tempted to throw in
our fortunes with the Long John Silvers of this world…only to discover
the difference between a Whig and a Jacobin when it is too late.
If we hasten to refound society in a Year One of our choosing, we
had better not forget that in possessing equal shares of a commonwealth
based on distribution, rather than markets, we are all equally expendable.

The dwindling
of the Hispaniola's crew is an enactment in miniature of
what would later in the same century befall the political class
of continental Europe. The idea of contracting society de novo
out of a state of nature developed in a few years from a half-baked
idea in the fevered brain of Rousseau into the policies of Robespierre.
Moreover, the heads which rolled from the guillotine, seemingly
the victims of envy and fanaticism, were in fact the logical consequences
of this policy. To be sure markets, as well as political policies,
have their victims, as we see from the loss of Ben Gunn's fortune.
However for Jacobinism and other forms of political intervention
it is people, not assets, which are liquidated. In the case of revolutionary
France the "Dead Man's Chest" upon which the political
class sat was the nation itself, conceived physiocratically as a
fixed sum of rent and distributed, in defiance of both Jacobin rhetoric
and gravity, upwards. The beneficiaries of this upward redistribution
were doomed by the same fatal logic as the mutineers of the Hispaniola,
as every ostracism increased the fractional booty of the contending
parties, until the whole process came to its inevitable conclusion
and a Long John Silver on horseback rode away with the jackpot.

These Jacobin
horrors don't imply that we need to be enamored of Squire Trelawney
and his bungling Toryism, or of the gentleman-bites-dog world in
which Stevenson has set his story. Nobody should take satisfaction
in seeing poor old blind Pew run over roughshod by Mr. Dance and
his revenue patrol. Yet even Trelawney and Dr. Livesey take king
and country with a grain of salt, and wisely dismiss Mr. Dance before
they open the suspicious package which contains the treasure map.
Once Trelawney, Livesey, and Smollett have hit the high seas the
state is left behind them, and what binds them (as well as the crew)
together is contract and the memory of civilization. Unfortunately
the faction of the crew led by Long John Silver proves faithless
and decides to wipe this slate clean, recontracting from the state
of nature. Having studied our political economy we now understand
the inevitable consequences of this fatal action on Treasure
Island. But what we 20th-century descendents of the
Whigs should recollect are the principles underlying the process,
hopefully before the appearance of the next man on horseback. Or
failing that, we should at least resolve not to be overly impressed
when he does make his appearance, recognizing him for what he is…just
the latest incarnation of Long John Silver and doomed like all the
other dirty dogs of history.

In conclusion,
let's simply note that Treasure Island lives up to all of its promises,
both as a work of adventure fiction and of political economy. Indeed,
it is only when we understand the political and economic dynamics
of the story that we come to grips with the more bloodcurdling aspects
of the tale. Jim Hawkins realizes this at the end, and vows never
to return to the accursed island, even if dreams of unearned wealth
could be realized there. And we should follow his example, for whatever
wealth of insight the story might contain is hardly an excuse to
put a book like this in the hands of children! That is, unless it
serves to teach both our children and ourselves wisdom.

December
22, 2005

Mark
Sunwall [send him email]
is an associate professor of the University of Hyogo, Akashi, Japan
where he teaches English writing and literature as well as Sociocultural
Anthropology. He is also an adjunct faculty member of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute
of Auburn Alabama. Although an occasional
fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his treasure hunting experience
is limited to searching for sand dollars on deserted Florida beaches.

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