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Economic Development is . . . (increasing the flow) of capital through the community and reducing its leakage.

Hooked on History

Two pirates, Morty and Sol, meet in a bar. Sol has a patch over one eye, a hook for a hand, and a wooden peg leg. “Ye gads, matey,” says Morty. “What happened to ya?”

Sol says, “Me pirate ship was attacked, and a lucky shot lopped off me leg. So now I got me a wooden peg.”

“And yer hand?” asks Marty.” When me ship sank, a shark bit me hand off. So now I got me a hook.”

“OK, but what’s with the eye patch?” “I was standin’ on a dock, and the biggest seagull I ever saw poops right in me eye.” “But ya don’t go blind from no seagull poop.”

“True,” says Sol. “But it was me first day with the hook.”

Edmund Burke once said “In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”

I came across a box of old books the other day while I was looking for a desk lamp for my son at college. In the box I found a book that I had totally forgotten about reading. –The Invisible Hook, by Peter T. Leeson. The book looks at some very unlikely business leaders of the past like Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, and Calico Jack Rackam.

You are probably thinking that this premise is crazy– how could savage criminals of the 1700’s be leaders of business innovation? Well if we think about it, if they desired to move beyond one-man mugging, they had to cooperate with each other to satisfy their self-interests. Besides, a one-man pirate “crew,” for example, wouldn’t have gotten far. To take the massive hauls they aimed at, pirates had to cooperate with many other sea dogs. The mystery is how such a shifty “parcel of rogues” successfully managed to pull these huge crimes.

Pure pirates were total outlaws. They attacked merchant ships indiscriminately for their own gain. In the book Richard Allein, attorney general of South Carolina, described them this way: “Pirates prey upon all Mankind, and their own Species and Fellow-Creatures, without Distinction of Nations or Religions.”

Leeson shows how pirates’ search for plunder led them to pioneer many remarkable and forward-thinking practices. It discussed how pirates understood the advantages of constitutional democracy–a model they adopted more than fifty years before the United States did so. They also initiated an early system of workers’ compensation, regulated drinking and smoking, and even practiced racial tolerance and equality.

His book illustrated that a pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than a boat of savages depicted in many books and movies. Hooks, peg legs and parrots aside, in the end, piracy was a business. It was a criminal business, but a innovative business nonetheless. I am always fascinated by history.


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