When the Leesons took their eight-year-old son Peter to Disney World, they could not have anticipated that his experience with the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would lead to a research project and book. In his book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates (Princeton University Press, April 2009), Peter T. Leeson, MA, PhD Economics ’05, looks at such legendary pirate captains as Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham and shows how pirates’ search for plunder led them to pioneer forward-thinking practices, such as workers’ compensation. Leeson writes, “Peg legs and parrots aside, in the end, piracy was a business.”
Leeson is BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at Mason’s Mercatus Center and associate editor of the Review of Austrian Economics. A former visiting fellow at Harvard University and the London School of Economics, he blogs regularly at the Austrian Economists web site at austrianeconomists.typepad.com.
How many years have you been studying pirates?
If you’re willing to count my time on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World as research, I began studying pirates when I was eight. Academically, I’ve been studying pirates for several years.
Was the research daunting? Did pirates keep decent records?
The research was probably the most academic fun I’ve ever had. Few pirates kept records themselves, but their contemporaries wrote a good deal about them, which is where most of our knowledge about pirates comes from.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
I was surprised to learn that the Jolly Roger, the black flag with the skull and crossbones on it, was a genuine and important part of pirate history. I was also surprised to learn that perhaps as much as a third of the average early 18th-century pirate crew was black.
This isn’t the only unusual topic to which you have applied your analysis. I know you’ve blogged about Bigfoot. What other areas interest you?
My research MO involves pursuing everything and anything I find interesting—from UFOs and Bigfoot sightings to pirates. I’m especially interested in how individuals create social order under anarchy. Since functional government is a relatively recent invention, I often find myself investigating how individuals pursued social order historically.