The State and Piracy

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It seems that piracy has, as it did a couple centuries ago, surfaced once again near the top of the official "things to fear" list. Admittedly, I’m a bit late — as I write, it is being replaced by flu. It’s always important, not just to keep the population in a state of fear, but to keep changing the items to be feared. This way, people will not fix their fear on a particular item, and then relax when that item is no longer reported. The goal is to keep us in a constant state of fear and dependence.

Nonetheless, piracy remains a hot topic today. Piracy on the high seas, of course, has long been a problem faced by merchant vessels. Today, though, the pirates are attacking ships flying the American flag, raising piracy from some minor problem for the rest of the world to a top priority. Such is the way the American mind works. The discussion is mostly limited to a narrow range of opinions — the various ways that the military should be involved in fighting piracy. Not asked is the question of whether the military should fight piracy, or if the task of protecting a vessel properly belongs to the owner of the vessel.

More to the point, we hear very little discussion about just what is wrong with the act of piracy. In their usual overblown hyperbole, the chattering classes tell us that piracy is among the most infamous of crimes, that no punishment less than death is fitting for a pirate — as if piracy were anything more than armed robbery and kidnapping committed in an unusual location. No, our politicians assure us, it is a crime without equal. The Chinese kill pirates with the firing squad.

Now, it might seem odd to raise the question of just what is wrong with being a pirate. After all, it appears obvious that threatening people with weapons (in a non-defensive way), holding people for ransom, and stealing the contents of large vessels is not a particularly nice way to make a living. To us normal folks, this is a perfectly reasonable explanation of the evils of piracy. However, this explanation is not available to our chattering classes, since there is no action involved in piracy which they do not cheer when committed by others.

These chatterers, be they media or politicians, have no complaint against the detention of the crew of a vessel carrying drugs or weapons. These crews might be held for ransom, known as bail, or held without any ransom. Is it worse to hold a man for ransom than to hold him and offer him no means to free himself? Any vessel coming onto shore will have a portion of the value of its cargo taken — we call it duty.

What of the deeper principles at work here? Certainly the chattering classes all agree that property may be taken at will from those who produce wealth, either for redistribution to the poor or for the immediate needs of the gunmen taking the money. If the pirates purchase weapons with the money they have raised, how is this different from the purchase of arms by governments with tax revenues? As far as redistribution to the poor is concerned, no one denies that the inhabitants of Somalia are poorer than Americans. Our own government frequently takes our property by force and sends it to Somalia. Now the Somalis have cut out the middleman and are taking it directly. The only difference would seem to be efficiency.

What’s more, the case for piracy is stronger than the case for redistribution. In by far the vast majority of cases of domestic redistribution, the money is taken from people who did not earn it on the backs of those to whom it is given. As John Perkins has detailed, though, the average American finds himself richer than he otherwise would (all else remaining equal) but for economic and military conquest of foreign lands — Somali’s history being a prime example.

Ah, but you might respond, they only approve of these actions when undertaken by governments, not ordinary mortals like these pirates. This is hard to argue against — certainly the average statist, for instance, speaks of disarming the ordinary mortal while drooling over the thought of bigger and better weapons for the government officials. So this must be the relevant difference. A difficulty remains, though — Somali has no government. It seems undeniable that the statist thinks that the actions undertaken by governments are good things — that is, that the actions themselves are not morally objectionable, and that the outcomes are better than the outcomes available by not taking them. The statist wants money taken from productive citizens and either given to the poor or used to buy weapons. Why should the absence of a government prevent these worthy endeavors from being undertaken? It is one thing to say that, in the presence of a government, private help is not needed in these tasks. It would be a far different thing, and not consistent with the general belief system of the statist, to say that the absence of a state dictates that such things simply shouldn’t be done.

More to the point, just what distinguishes the pirates from a state? Certainly, they are not hired by democratically elected leaders, but there are plenty of recognized states in the world which are not democratic. Some of the oldest states consist of little more than self-appointed kings, so this feature hardly seems important. They seem to exercise little concern about living conditions, and as part of the warlord culture, have no interest in doing anything other than living as parasites off of the other members of society. This certainly is not a distinction — this is the definition of a state. The state is not recognized by other states nor by the UN, but neither type of recognition can be a precondition to statehood without involving logical absurdities. If statehood requires the recognition by existing states, then there can be no first state, and hence no future states. If statehood requires recognition by the UN, which is itself an assembly of states, and whose members are all states, then once again our definition cannot get off the ground, as there would be no states to form the UN to recognize states.

The differences, it seems, are largely cosmetic. If the pirates wore silly white uniforms, had larger weapons, and used different terminology when approaching boats, we would regard them as the Somali Coast Guard. Rather than saying "we’re pirates, we’re here to steal your stuff and kidnap you" they would need to say "we’re the Coast Guard, we’re here to tax your stuff at a rate of 100% and detain you."

So, it isn’t clear just what objection our chattering classes can make to the actions of the pirates. This serves, of course, not to let the pirates off the hook, but to question what we accept on a daily basis. We would not accept such behavior on the high seas — the last uncivilized frontier, in most people’s minds — yet we accept it in our cities and in our homes. Why do our media talking-heads and politicians harp on the subject so much, though, if they have no objection to what the pirates do? Clearly, it helps to reinforce the impression that the world is a scary, scary place outside the borders of the US. Our government in its current form could not last, I predict, if most Americans had any concept of what the world looks like outside our borders. More importantly, it drives home to the unthinking just how dependent we are on government. After all, it was privateers who held a ship captain hostage and a government who freed him. Never mind the question of how our Navy obtained the funds necessary to buy their boats — or how their jurisdiction extends to the Somali coast. The point is to understand that all good in the world comes from your government, and everything foreign is scary and dangerous — oh, and for good measure, you should realize that you are impotent and unable to fight off any threat, and entirely dependent on your government. This is an important message to drive home.

Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the Legislative Director of the Libertarian Party of Connecticut. A member of the faculty of Oxford Academy in Westbrook, Connecticut, his areas of interest include mathematics, philosophy of mind, and the use of the synthetic a priori.

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