The Political Economy of Treasure Island

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

Political Theatre

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