Pirates as Tax Collectors?

[Co-authored with Ilya Shapiro.]

As we suspected, with world attention focused on the just-concluded piracy standoff, it was only a matter of time before someone would write something like this: “the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government.” Perhaps the Mafia too –- “pay, or we break your legs” –- is like a pseudo-government.

The difference between a tax and extortion is not subtle, even if it seems to have escaped the cited authorities, including Noam Chomsky. A tax, at least in principle, and most often in practice, is a charge for a service rendered –- not necessarily a wanted or an evenly distributed service, to be sure, but most relevant here, protection from third-party pirates and other lawless predators, domestic and foreign. By contrast, a pirate’s shakedown puts the victim to a choice between two of his entitlements –- his freedom and his property. That distinction –- again, hardly subtle –- is what prompted us to leave the state of nature. Those who would like to return to that state will find it waiting for them on the horn of Africa.