Thoughts on Piracy

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Maybe all those Somali 'pirates' we are told about aren't really pirates at all. Maybe perhaps they are in fact privateers. Which means what, exactly? Well from Wikipedia this on the subject:

'Prior to the development of international law among European nations, there was no legal recourse for minor grievances. Privateering was a form of covert operation used to resolve these matters without open warfare. The government of a country provided a letter of marque and reprisal to a shipowner that allowed him to arm his ship and attack other ships sailing under a particular flag. In return he received a share of the seized cargo, while the rest went to the government as payment for the grievance.

To the target country, a privateer looked very much like a pirate, and indeed this was the intention. The only difference was that pirates were considered outlaws by all nations, while privateers had immunity from the country that commissioned them, and were considered as prisoners of war if caught by other countries. Privateers were sometimes known as 'gentleman pirates'.

This is perhaps one way to keep the Western powers, who after all are the only ones routinely interfering in Somali affairs, at bay. That is to set privately owned armed ships against their ships when they enter the traditional territorial waters around Somalia .

European powers renounced privateering' the article cited goes on to say, 'in the 1856 Declaration of Paris . Other countries (including the United States ) also renounced it under the Hague Conventions (1899/1907).'

Which is of course claptrap, as we all know. Many, many are the examples of the CIA and other state-run intelligence agencies using mercenaries, private parties and other cats-paws to do their bidding upon the chessboard of international affairs, eh?

Once again we see here the peculiar mindset of statist thinking. The aggressive action that is undertaken by a state, (border guards, naval patrols, customs inspectors, immigration police, tax collectors, etc.) is considered useful, necessary, and proper by people who accept statism as normal and proper. And yet if private parties undertake the exact same behavior, statists then believe it illegal. Or at least suspect. Why is that, anyhow? Armed men using or threatening to use force to accomplish their will are somehow moral and legitimate when sanctioned by a state? Why is that? Who sanctions the state then?

In the end, seagoing public safety is the same as on land. If you want maximum liberty to conduct your affairs, you provide what you need or want for yourself. Setting up a state that then creates a navy and/or other armed forces gives one little better actual safety or security. Just a more regularized form of theft is all that the state-sanctioned form provides. Pay the 'pirates' shakedown money, arm your vessels and crews, or pay the state's tax collectors their claimed share of your funds and cargo whilst under the menacing gaze of their deck guns. No perfect choices here obviously, but at least with the first two, you know full well what you are in for. The third state-approved option is simply a cleaned up parody of the first two. And of liberty and order as well.

The burglar or hold-up man who is obviously using force to steal from you is different from the taxman with a crew of ski mask-wearing and machine gun-toting police exactly how? Answer: No different. The only difference is in perception. The state-sanctioned robbery has the law (meaning the state), behind it for its ultimate justification and nothing more. Theft is theft after all.

So when I see a headline like 'Somali Pirates 'Demand $1M for Ship'', and then another like US 'Seizes al-Qaeda Drugs Ship' or 'Palestinian Ship That Ferried Arms Seized by Israel', or this blast from the past from 2003, 'US Navy Seizes Smuggled Iraqi Oil', it occurs to me that what is seized by a state for being illegal contraband or by pirates using robbery is only a matter of perception. The underlying objective reality of what occurred, that is to say armed ships interfering with commerce, is fundamentally no different except in how one views it.

If a private party wants to ship arms to Israel and Palestinians seized it, that would be piracy most would say. But not the reverse however. That is seagoing law enforcement, which to my mind is utter nonsense. I doubt that even the ghost of Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) (more commonly known to history as Grotius), the grandfather of modern international law of the sea theory could show me what the difference is other than statist memed semantic word-games. Or the modern UN-instigated Ocean and Law of the Sea Treaty too, for that matter. The UN's and the nations of this world's collective take on piracy versus 'law enforcement' comes down to this: If a state robs you, it's cool. If 'private' (that is to say non-state) actors do the exact same thing, well that is piracy, and so is not cool.

If I buy a cargo of cigarettes and sail to another place to sell them and a rival band of cigarette sellers attacks me or threaten to while on the high seas unless I pay them money or a portion of my smokes, this is merely internecine criminal activity, say the statists. However, if a navy, customs officers, police, or others in the pay of a state and acting under its sanction do the exact same thing, only calling it 'tax collection,' how is it any different in practice?

And to beat a dead horse still further, who pulls the state's strings here? The rival cigarette smugglers' operatives are in the pay of my business competitors. If instead of taking action directly my competitors bribe or otherwise influence the rulers of a state to build a navy or create a border police or a tariff collection apparatus in order to squelch their competitors, this now is the 'rule of law'? I think not. To paraphrase von Clauswitz, it is really commercial 'warfare by other means.'

And so let me end with this summary of my conclusions. I stipulate that there are no perfect answers here and there never have been. However, alternatives and solutions exist and always have. Commerce is better when it is unrestrained by states or by private parties using force. If someone has a product to sell and there is someone else who wishes to buy it, who then are the navies of this world to interfere? What is their right to do so? They have none, say I. Navies are merely pirates by another name and with different flags than the Jolly Roger.

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Ali Hassan Massoud's picture
Columns on STR: 43

Ali Massoud is a proud old-school isolationist who writes for the Internet and blogs.