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The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates

4.3 out of 5 stars 54 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691137476
ISBN-10: 0691137471
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Economist Leeson leads readers though a surprisingly entertaining crash course in economics in this study of high seas piracy at the turn of the 18th century. Far from being the bloodthirsty fiends portrayed in popular culture, pirates created a harmonious social order; through the application of rational choice theory, the author explains how a common pursuit of individual self-interest led pirates to create self-regulating, democratic societies aboard their ships, complete with checks and balances, more than half a century before the American and French revolutions brought such models to state-level governance. Understanding the profit motive that guided pirates' actions reveals why pirates so cruelly tortured the crews of ships that resisted boarding, yet treated those who surrendered readily with the utmost respect. Both practices worked to minimize costs to the pirate crew by discouraging resistance that could lead to loss of life and limb for pirates and damage to either the pirates' ship or the cargo aboard. Illustrated with salty tales of pirates both famous and infamous, the book rarely bogs down even when explaining intricate economic concepts, making it a great introduction to both pirate history and economic theory. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


One of San Francisco Chronicle's 100 Best Books for 2009

Winner of the 2009 Best International Nonfiction Book, Week

Winner of the 2009 Gold Medal Book of the Year Award in Business and Economics, ForeWord Reviews

"A brisk, clever new book, The Invisible Hook, by Peter T. Leeson, an economist who claims to have owned a pirate skull ring as a child and to have had supply-and-demand curves tattooed on his right biceps when he was seventeen, offers a different approach. Rather than directly challenging pirates' leftist credentials, Leeson says that their apparent espousal of liberty, equality, and fraternity derived not from idealism but from a desire for profit."--Caleb Crain, New Yorker

"[S]urprising and engaging . . . . [Leeson's] seminars must be wildly popular."--Stephen Sedley, London Review of Books

"Economist Leeson leads readers though a surprisingly entertaining crash course in economics in this study of high seas piracy at the turn of the 18th century. . . . Illustrated with salty tales of pirates both famous and infamous, the book rarely bogs down even when explaining intricate economic concepts, making it a great introduction to both pirate history and economic theory."--Publishers Weekly

"Mr. Leeson's book represents a serious attempt to use the tools of economics to make sense of the institutions of piracy. The book is another example of economic imperialism, the use of economics to make sense of real world phenomena that are outside the standard realm of economic science. It addresses an important force that did, and does, impact world trade. But as the skull and crossbones on its spine suggests, the book is also just fun. . . . [T]he book manages to be entertaining and informative. It is a fun read and provides parents with something to teach their children while looking for pirate treasure left long ago at the beach."--Edward Glaeser, Economix blog, NYTimes.com

"The Invisible Hook is an excellent book by one of the most creative young economists around."--Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics blog

"Peter T. Leeson has done his part to dispel the pirate myths by using economic theory to explain pirate behavior and organization in his exemplary new book. . . . Mr. Leeson has produced a fresh perspective on an old topic. . . . The Invisible Hook is quick-paced but thought-provoking. Based on this work, the reader should look forward to more books by the author."--Claude Berube, Washington Times

"Piracy has not been Leeson's only obsession. The other has been economics. When he was 17 years old he had supply and demand curves tattooed on his right bicep . . . now the professor has brought his two enthusiasms together in a wonderful (and wonderfully titled) new book. The Invisible Hook is his study of the hidden economics of piracy."--Daniel Finkelstein, Times

"Jauntily characterising the typical pirate ship as akin to 'a Fortune 500 company', [Leeson] reorients pirates as precursors of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics."--Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times

"One of the finest introductory courses in economics since Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. . . . The Invisible Hook is a good addition to the genre of popular economics: a fun and enlightening read, and rock solid in its scholarly bona fides."--Michael Shermer, Nature

"From countless films and books we all know that, historically, pirates were criminally insane, traitorous thieves, torturers and terrorists. Anarchy was the rule, and the rule of law was nonexistent. Not so, dissents George Mason University economist Peter Leeson in his myth-busting book, The Invisible Hook, which shows how the unseen hand of economic exchange produces social cohesion even among pirates."--Michael Shermer, Scientific American

"Given the flurry of piracy off the Somali coast in 2009, this relatively short narrative could not be timelier. The Invisible Hook, a play on Adam Smith's famous 'invisible hand,' is an engaging, informative look at the economics of piracy and pirates."--Choice

"Peter Leeson, an economics professor at George Mason University, offers a fascinating perspective into the world of Blackbeard, 'Black Bart' Roberts and 'Calico Jack' Rackham in his highly readable book The Invisible Hook."--J. Peter Pham, San Francisco Chronicle

"An engaging and thorough portrait of high seas banditry that goes beyond the pop-culture stereotypes to argue that though often brutal and always mercenary, pirates were ahead of their time when it came to matters of economic fairness and progressive labor practices."--Kevin Canfield, Mother Jones

"[I]n The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson deftly explodes piratical myths . . . . [The Invisible Hook] offers many colourful, meticulously researched insights into the behaviour of some of history's most colourful anti-heroes, and it will appeal to anyone with even passing interests in history, politics, sociology and/or economics."--Michelle Baddeley, Times Higher Education

"Leeson says history cannot explain all piratical paradoxes. Only economics can disentangle the different strands."--Leon Gettler, The Age

"Leeson hangs the meat of his pirate tale on a sturdy skeleton of economics. . . . The Invisible Hook is a delightful read, thanks to Leeson's engaging writing. He reduces a veritable mountain of facts and history into an entertainingly educational experience."--Lewis Perdue, Barron's

"This engaging account is fun to read and full of humor, qualities not often associated with an explanation of economic theory. . . . This reviewer speculates that if more economic texts were written like this one, there would be a glut of economics majors to compensate for the shortage of pirates roaming the Atlantic."--Karl Helicher, Foreword Magazine

"Peter T. Leeson digs into the dollars and cents of piracy. He urges us to see pirates as economic actors, their behavior shaped by incentives, just like the rest of us. Once you're in an economic state of mind, you can begin to understand actions such as lighting one's beard on fire, voting, being decent to black people, and torturing captives 'for fun'--all equally nutty behaviors to the average 18th--century observer. When Leeson is done guiding you through the pirate world, life on a rogue ship starts to look less like a Carnival cruise with cutlasses and cannons and more like an ongoing condo association meeting at sea."--Katherine Mangu-Ward, Reason

"Cleverly written and witty. . . . [Casts] a penetrating glance at the social and political motives of these odd outlaw communities."--Daniele Archibugi, Open Democracy

"Delightful. . . . Examines the hidden order behind the literal anarchy of pirates. . . . Entertaining and educational."--Roger K. Miller, Tampa Bay Tribune

"What possible connection could there be between economics and a book on piracy? A lot, it turns out. Peter Leeson explains this seemingly bizarre connection in page after page of his witty new book, The Invisible Hook."--David R. Henderson, Regulation Magazine

"[Offers] not only a thumbnail history of piracy but important insights into the economic way of thinking. . . . Fascinating, entertaining and educational."--Alan W. Bock, Orange County Register

"[A]n eye-opener. . . . The Invisible Hook is a gripping read that sheds as much light on 21st century economics . . . as it does on 17th and 18th century piracy."--Ethical Corporation Magazine

"The book wittily demonstrates that economic theories and principles, if not the be-all and end-all, can illuminate notable historical trends."--Stephen Saunders, Canberra Times

"[W]ell-documented and very readable . . . covers pirates from bow to stern. In addition to some descriptions of high seas navigation, maneuvers and stealth that border on high adventure, Leeson supplies plenty of counterintuitive, even surprising, revelations about pirates. . . . And Leeson explains it all with economics. . . . Bottom line: Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook is an insightful hoot, and scores a couple of extra points for originality. Economics-minded readers who enjoy historical adventure or relish over-the-top 'freakonomics' should get a hearty yo-ho-ho out of this book. Not to mention a 360-degree brain twist before diving into that new Michael Crichton novel."--Seeking Alpha

"This is an enjoyable read that discusses the management style, branding, employee recruitment and retention, compensation and incentives and strategic planning of pirates and why these systems were effective. There are some valuable lessons to be learned."--Bill Sutton, Sports Business Journal

"Peter Leeson's The Invisible Hook argues that many of the founding principles of capitalist, liberal democracies are not rooted in the Glorious Revolution or the writing of the Declaration of Independence; but the incentive structures necessary to keep a group of rowdy ocean-bound outlaws working as a team of ruthless sea bandits."--Tim Wilson, IPA Reviews

"It's Freakonomics meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Hirshleifer meets Jack Sparrow. Fischer Black meets Blackbeard. Adam Smith meets Captain Hook. . . . Peter Leeson claims, 'A pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than the society of savage schoolchildren depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.' And by the end of the book, he had me convinced of it."--Rick Lax, Las Vegas Weekly

"Leave it to an economist to take our current obsession [with pirates] and peer under it in search of a new interpretation. . . . The Invisible Hook is an entertaining economic history of an era and a way of business rarely considered in such a way. Pirates were rational!"--MIT Sloan Management Review

"Peter T. Leeson . . . puts salty flesh on the bones of the pirates' legend in The Invisible Hook, pulling off the formidable trick of being both rigorous and cheeky. . . . Leeson's lights . . . are bright and convincing. . . . [A] jaunty gem of a book. . . . [H]is argument assuredly does bolster the Chicago School case that the dismal science pervades every human endeavor."--Jonathan Stevenson, Democracy

"Leeson's book is stimulating, provocative, and, of course, a fun read."--Douglas Marcouiller, Journal of World Trade Review

"For those who are interested in a quick course in free-market political economy, or in a fresh approach to the history of piracy, The Invisible Hook provides many pleasures and provocations."--Philip Smallwood, Eighteenth-Century Studies

"The Invisible Hook is certainly a worthwhile read for various audiences. It can serve as an effective introduction to several key economic concepts with pirate society serving as an excellent vehicle for grabbing a reader's interest. This book would be an ideal supplemental reading for undergraduate principles of microeconomics or economic history classes. . . . The book can also be valuable to any historian of piracy seeking a uniquely economics-based perspective on their subject."--Andrew Young, Southern Economic Journal

"[Leeson] clearly is . . . an undoubtedly excellent teacher, because the style and tone of the book are that of an engaging lecturer who makes economics entertaining for his undergraduate students."--Mark G. Hanna, International Journal of Maritime History

"[T]here is much to be learned from Blackbeard and his compatriots: social order can arise without explicit design, and economics provides a powerful set of ideas for understanding how. This is the central idea of The Invisible Hook, and part of the reason why it is among the best popular works of economics in recent years."--Francis J. DiTraglia, Journal of Value Inquiry

"I guarantee that after the first few pages you won't be able to put this book down, and you will come away with a set of refreshing insights that you may very well find relevant to your own research agenda. . . . To put it bluntly, this book is a must read, or at least a 'should read,' for comparative political scientists, particularly those with a taste for the world of economics. . . . Leeson should at least get a couple doubloons of your hard-earned booty."--Anthony Gill, Comparative Political Studies

"The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, stands out as a novel contribution to international economics and, by extension, international relations."--Mitchell A. Belfer, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies

"Well shiver me timbers, this surely is a wickedly good book! In fact, Peter Leeson has produced a book applying the dismal science that is both fun to read, and entertaining. Arrgh-uably, it also has more economic relevance than 95 percent of the articles in mainstream economics journals. Furthermore, it is accessible to virtually any reader."--Bruce L. Benson, Public Choice

"With all the books on these colorful criminals, Leeson's is the only one to focus on the economic side of the matter. That is his great advantage."--Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance

"The Invisible Hook is a great read. I recommend it without hesitation to professional academics, students, anyone interested in a clear exposition of the economic way of thinking, and every scurvy dog who is interested in pirating."--Bruce L. Benson, Public Choice


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691137471
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691137476
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #562,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Justin E. Williams on April 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What begins as a simple story of Pirates soon turns into an unique journey through Economics and History. Peter Leeson, who is an Economist, uses methodological individualism to analyze the behavior of Pirates as simple profit seekers. This allows Leeson to give a different view of the Pirates then most of us are used to. He also introduces us to many unknown facts about Pirates, who are a common cultural obsession. The secret to his book is the fact that he teaches us both Economics and History without you even realizing it. Books like More Sex is Safer Sex by Steve Landsburg and Freakonomics by Steven Levitt teach you an unconventional way to look at problems, but often not through a classic historical case. This book will do both without you hardly noticing.

The Invisible Hook is not written in a way that is hard for non-Economists to understand. It is written just for that type of audience. This book now ranks top on my list of books to recommend those as an introductory lesson into the economic way of thinking. At the same time, if you do study Economics you will not be bored as the historical mechanism takes over. For example, you may know what signaling is but the economics student likely does not know exactly how the Pirates used the flag, the Jolly Roger, to signal to other ships.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the very last chapter. Leeson sets up a class in Pirate Management with the professor Blackbeard. Without giving to much away, he goes through and restates points in the book with modern literature. He also provides a very good reading list for those who want to read further into Economics in that chapter. This is the most unique way I have ever seen anyone end a book.
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Format: Hardcover
The Invisible Hook takes a rational choice framework and applies it to the golden age of Anglo-American piracy. The resulting ideas are compelling and fun, and Leeson presents them enthusiastically and clearly. He's excited about pirates, at least as much as he is about econ, and he wants to set the record straight. "Pirate fiction portrays seamen as choosing piracy out of romantic, if misled, ideals about freedom, equality, and fraternity," but Leeson knows the reality was less about utopia and more about "piratical means, used to secure cooperation within pirates' criminal organization, rather than piratical ends, as they're often depicted." And just about all pirate actions will come down to this.

Leeson makes no claim to being a historian and makes free use of secondary sources to present the historical record, aiming to interpret that record through the lens of economics. But still, there was plenty for me to learn about the basic history as well: the difference between buccaneers and pirates, for example, or the importance of the quarter-master on a pirate ship. Also the great size of pirate crews in comparison to those of merchantmen, and the truly great potential prize available to pirates in their golden age. And just about everything there is to learn about pirates is interesting. The romantic nature of the subject is really inescapable.

That remains true even when the motives of the outlaws are unwoven. Leeson contends that "only with economics can we make sense of a great deal of otherwise unintelligible individual behavior." It's the only way to understand a group made up seemingly of "libertarians who conscripted nearly all their members, democrats with dictatorial captains, and lawless anarchists who lived by a strict code of rules.
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Economist Peter Leeson has written an excellent new book on the economics of pirates and pirate governance, and it is a must read for anyone interested in the history of pirates.

Leeson wades through original source material as well as pirate histories to draw surprising insights into the pirate life, using economic analysis to explain their tactics as well as the reasoning behind the peculiar structure of pirate articles and codes. Many with deep knowledge of pirates won't find a lot truly new in the book. Rather, it's the way Lesson connects the dots that makes this book stand out. Indeed, with citations to our own Federalist papers, Leeson does an excellent job of showing how the choices pirate communities made about their captains and on-board ship behavior foreshadowed many of the basic principles that underly the U.S. version of Constitutional government and its unique system of checks and balances on power. He also provides an excellent and crisp analysis of the calculated use of terror by pirates to achieve their objectives.

The book is eminently readable compared to most books by economists. No need to worry about math, supply and demand curves, or jargon. Leeson also keeps the pace of the book flowing through solid organization and an admirable ability to avoid straying off theme or subject. But, be forewarned. The Invisible Hook is targeted toward adults. The author is thorough and takes his subject seriously.

Professors and teachers: This would be an excellent supplemental text for courses on political economy, public choice economics, public policy, economic history, or criminal justice.

This review was written by S.R. Staley, author of [...]
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