• 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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