Acton Institute Powerblog

Pirate Morality

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By now you’ve read one or more stories about the increasing levels of piracy on Africa’s east coast, brought into the spotlight by the recent capture of a Saudi oil tanker.

Piracy is, of course, simply a specific form of theft, a vice that like all basic vices will be with us to the end of time. Sometimes there is a fine line between state military conflict and piracy, as the case of Sir Francis Drake attests (to the English, a hero and nobleman; to the Spanish, a pirate). The problem of piracy along the African coast has plagued American shipping for as long as the nation has existed: One of the earliest missions undertaken by the US Marine Corps was an assault on the infamous bandit havens of the Barbary Coast (remembered still in the Corps’ anthem as “the shores of Tripoli”).

What I found striking about this particular story on the current problem was the sheer breadth of cooperation in the outlawry, evidently without compunction. In the Somali region highlighted, seemingly everyone, from small businessmen, to government officials, to the “mother of five,” views piracy as a positive feature of local life. On display is the absence of elements of a moral culture necessary for a free and functional society, such as deference to the rule of law and respect for property rights. Granted that the culpability of any number of players may be diminished by the harsh realities affecting an impoverished nation without a functioning central government, it is still a depressing picture of indifference to the common good in pursuit of self interest. Would that the modern-day pirates had the inclination and opportunity to direct their talents and energy in a way that actually created wealth rather than merely siphoning it from the rest of the world.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.

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Comments

  • B.R.

    Blog readers might be interested in a new book coming out about the economics of piracy, by a Hillsdale College graduate Peter Leeson:http://www.peterleeson.com/TheInvisibleHook.html

  • Agreed.

    See also: Would that the modern-day pirates were in countries whose rulers had established far better incentives to engage in productive behavior– instead of their inclination to siphon off wealth from (and otherwise abuse) their citizens.