Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph.
But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.
A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse. To get from a local optimum to a global optimum, you might have to endure a significant trough of things going worse before you reach your destination. (Those troughs would be the points X=3.03 and X=5.02 on the graph.) If the troughs are short and shallow enough, people can accidentally power their way through. If long and deep enough, people get stuck.
The introduction of new technology, exposure to another culture’s solutions, or even random chance can expose a local optimum and propel a group to cross that trough.
For example, back in 1400, Europeans were perfectly happy to get their Chinese silks, spices, and porcelains via the overland Silk Road. But with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Silk Road became more fragmented and difficult (ie dangerous, ie expensive) to travel. The increased cost of the normal road prompted Europeans to start exploring other, less immediately profitable trade routes–like the possibility of sailing clear around the world, via the ocean, to the other side of China.
Without the eastern trade routes first diminishing in profitability, it wouldn’t have been economically viable to explore and develop the western routes. (With the discovery of the Americas, in the process, a happy accident.)
West Hunter (Greg Cochran) writes frequently about local optima; here’s an excerpt on plant domestication:
The reason that a few crops account for the great preponderance of modern agriculture is that a bird in the hand – an already-domesticated, already- optimized crop – feeds your family/makes money right now, while a potentially useful yet undomesticated crop doesn’t. One successful domestication tends to inhibit others that could flourish in the same niche. Several crops were domesticated in the eastern United States, but with the advent of maize and beans ( from Mesoamerica) most were abandoned. Maybe if those Amerindians had continued to selectively breed sumpweed for a few thousand years, it could have been a contender: but nobody is quite that stubborn.
Teosinte was an unpromising weed: it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to try to domesticate it, and it took a long time to turn it into something like modern maize. If someone had brought wheat to Mexico six thousand years ago, likely the locals would have dropped maize like a hot potato. But maize ultimately had advantages: it’s a C4 plant, while wheat is C3: maize yields can be much higher.
Teosinte is the ancestor of modern corn. Cochran’s point is that in the domestication game, wheat is a local optimum; given the wild ancestors of wheat and corn, you’d develop a better, more nutritious variety of wheat first and probably just abandon the corn. But if you didn’t have wheat and you just had corn, you’d keep at the corn–and in the end, get an even better plant.
(Of course, corn is a success story; plenty of people domesticated plants that actually weren’t very good just because that’s what they happened to have.)
Japan in 1850 was a culturally rich, pre-industrial, feudal society with a strong isolationist stance. In 1853, the Japanese discovered that the rest of the world’s industrial, military technology was now sufficiently advanced to pose a serious threat to Japanese sovereignty. Things immediately degenerated, culminating in the Boshin War (civil war, 1868-9,) but with the Meiji Restoration Japan embarked on an industrialization crash-course. By 1895, Japan had kicked China’s butt in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese population doubled–after holding steady for centuries–between 1873 and 1935. (From 35 to 70 million people.) By the 1930s, Japan was one of the world’s most formidable industrial powers, and today it remains an economic and technological powerhouse.
Clearly the Japanese people, in 1850, contained the untapped ability to build a much more complex and advanced society than the one they had, and it did not take much exposure to the outside world to precipitate a total economic and technological revolution.
A similar case occurred in 1821 when Sequoyah, a Cherokee man, invented his own syllabary (syllable-based alphabet) after observing American soldiers reading letters. The Cherokee quickly adopted Sequoyah’s writing system–by 1825, the majority of Cherokee were literate and the Cherokee had their own printing industry. Interestingly, although some of the Cherokee letters look like Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic letters, there is no correspondence in sound, because Sequoyah could not read English. He developed his entire syllabary after simply being exposed to the idea of writing.
The idea of literacy has occurred independently only a few times in human history; the vast majority of people picked up alphabets from someone else. Our Alphabet comes from the Latins who got it from the Greeks who adopted it from the Phoenicians who got it from some proto-canaanite script writers, and even then literacy spread pretty slowly. The Cherokee, while not as technologically advanced as Europeans at the time, were already a nice agricultural society and clearly possessed the ability to become literate as soon as they were exposed to the idea.
Likewise, contact between Europeans and groups like the Australian Aboriginees did not result in the Aboriginees adopting European technology nor a new and improved fusion of Aboriginee and European tech, but in total disaster for the Aboriginees. While the Japanese consistently top the charts in educational attainment, Aboriginee communities are still struggling with low literacy rates, high dropout rates, and low employment–the modern industrial economy, in short, has not been kind to them.
Along a completely different evolutionary pathway, cephalopods–squids, octopuses, and their tentacled ilk–are the world’s smartest invertebrates. This is pretty amazing, given that their nearest cousins are snails and clams. Yet cephalopod intelligence only goes so far. No one knows (yet) just how smart cephalopods are–squids in particular are difficult to work with in captivity because they are active hunter/swimmers and need a lot more space than the average aquarium can devote–but their brain power appears to be on the order of a dog’s.
After millions of years of evolution, cephalopods may represent the best nature can do–with an invertebrate. Throw in a backbone, and an animal can get a whole lot smarter.
And in chemistry, activation energy is the amount of energy you have to put into a chemical system before a reaction can begin. Stable chemical systems essentially exist at local optima, and it can require the input of quite a lot of energy before you get any action out of them. For atoms, iron is the global–should we say universal?–optimum, beyond which reactions are endothermic rather than exothermic. In other words, nuclear fusion at the core of the sun ends with iron; elements heavier than iron can only be produced when stars explode.
So what do local optima have to do with diversity?
The current vogue for diversity (“Diversity is our greatest strength”) suggests that we can reach global optima faster by simply smushing everyone together and letting them compare notes. Scroll back to the Japanese case. Edo Japan had a nice culture, but it was also beset by frequent famines. Meiji Japan doubled its population. Giving everyone, right now, the same technology and culture would bring everyone up to the same level.
But you can’t tell from within if you are at a local or global optimum. That’s how they work. The Indians likely would have never developed corn had they been exposed to wheat early on, and subsequently Europeans would have never gotten to adopt corn, either. Good ideas can take a long time to refine and develop. Cultures can improve rapidly–even dramatically–by adopting each other’s good ideas, but they also need their own space and time to pursue their own paths, so that good but slowly developing ideas aren’t lost.
As we were discussing on Monday, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down. Ironically, as we add more people to a group–beyond a certain limit–it becomes more difficult for individuals with particular expertise to convince everyone else in the group that the group’s majority consensus is wrong.
The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations. (I once tried to figure out just how many laws and regulations America has. The answer I found was that no one knows.)
An organization is initially founded to accomplish some purpose that benefits its founders–generally to make them well-off, but often also to produce some useful good or service. A small organization is lean, efficient, and generally exemplifies the ideals put forth in Adam Smith’s invisible hand:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages. —The Wealth Of Nations, Book I
As an organization ages and grows, its founders retire or move on, it becomes more dependent on policies and regulations and each individual employee finds his own incentives further displaced from the company’s original intentions. Soon a company is no longer devoted to either the well-being of its founders or its customers, but to the company itself. (And that’s kind of a best-case scenario in which the company doesn’t just disintegrate into individual self-interest.)
I am reminded of a story about a computer that had been programmed to play Tetris–actually, it had been programmed not to lose at Tetris. So the computer paused the game. A paused game cannot lose.
What percentage of employees (especially management) have been incentivized to win? And what percentage are being incentivized to not lose?
And no, I don’t mean that in some 80s buzzword-esque way. Most employees have more to lose (ie, their jobs) if something goes wrong as a result of their actions than to gain if something goes right. The stockholders might hope that employees are doing everything they can to maximize profits, but really, most people are trying not to mess up and get fired.
Fear of messing up goes beyond the individual scale. Whole companies are goaded by concerns about risk–“Could we get sued?” Large corporation have entire legal teams devoted to telling them how they could get sued for whatever their doing and to filing lawsuits against their competitors for whatever they’re doing.
A family in a town I visited bought an old fire station a few years ago with the intention of turning it into a Portuguese bakery and brewpub. They thought they’d have to retrofit the interior of the building to meet health and safety standards for such an establishment.
Turns out the cost of bringing the landscape around the outside of the building up to code was their primary impediment. Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on-site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, drought-tolerant native plantings…it’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. … Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. …
Individually it’s impossible to argue against each of the particulars. Do you really want to deprive people in wheelchairs of the basic civil right of public accommodation? Do you really want the place to catch fire and burn? Do you want a barren landscape that’s bereft of vegetation? …
I was in Hamtramck, Michigan a couple of years ago to participate in a seminar about reactivating neighborhoods through incremental small-scale development. …
While the event was underway the fire marshal happened to drive by and noticed there were people—a few dozen actual humans—occupying a commercial building in broad daylight. In a town that has seen decades of depopulation and disinvestment, this was an odd sight. And he was worried. Do people have permission for this kind of activity? Had there been an inspection? Was a permit issued? Is everything insured? He called one of his superiors to see if he should shut things down in the name of public safety.
It’s a good article. You should read the whole thing.
Back in Phillipe Bourgeois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio, Phillipe describes one drug dealer’s attempt to use the money he’d made to go into honest business by opening a convenience store. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the store complaint with NYC disability-access regulations, and so the store never opened and the owner went back to dealing drugs. (What IQ, I wonder, is necessary to comply with all of these laws and regulations in the first place?)
Now, I’m definitely in favor of disabled people being able to buy groceries and use bathrooms. But what benefits a disabled person more: a convenience store that’s not fully wheel-chair accessible, or a crack house?
In My IRB Nightmare, Scott Alexander writes about trying to do a simple study to determine whether the screening test already being used to diagnose people with bipolar disorder is effective at diagnosing them:
When we got patients, I would give them the bipolar screening exam and record the results. Then Dr. W. would conduct a full clinical interview and formally assess them. We’d compare notes and see how often the screening test results matched Dr. W’s expert diagnosis.
Remember, they were already using the screening test on patients and then having them talk to the doctor for a formal assessment. The only thing the study added was that Scott would compare how well the screening results matched the formal assessment. No patients would be injected, subject to new procedures, or even asked different questions. They just wanted to compare two data sets.
After absurd quantities of paperwork and an approval process much too long to summarize here, the project got audited:
I kept the audit report as a souvenier. I have it in front of me now. Here’s an example infraction:
The data and safety monitoring plan consists of ‘the Principal Investigator will randomly check data integrity’. This is a prospective study with a vulnerable group (mental illness, likely to have diminished capacity, likely to be low income) and, as such, would warrant a more rigorous monitoring plan than what is stated above. In addition to the above, a more adequate plan for this study would also include review of the protocol at regular intervals, on-going checking of any participant complaints or difficulties with the study, monitoring that the approved data variables are the only ones being collected, regular study team meetings to discuss progress and any deviations or unexpected problems. Team meetings help to assure participant protections, adherence to the protocol. Having an adequate monitoring plan is a federal requirement for the approval of a study. See Regulation 45 CFR 46.111 Criteria For IRB Approval Of Research. IRB Policy: PI Qualifications And Responsibility In Conducting Research. Please revise the protocol via a protocol revision request form. Recommend that periodic meetings with the research team occur and be documented.
… Faced with submitting twenty-seven new pieces of paperwork to correct our twenty-seven infractions, Dr. W and I gave up. We shredded the patient data and the Secret Code Log. We told all the newbies they could give up and go home. … We told the IRB that they had won, fair and square; we surrendered unconditionally.
The point of all that paperwork and supervision is to make sure that no one replicates the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment nor the Nazi anything. Noble sentiments–but as a result, a study comparing two data sets had to be canceled.
I’ve noticed recently that much of the interesting medical research is happening in the third world/China–places where the regulations aren’t as strong and experiments (of questionable ethics or not) can actually get done.
Like the computer taught not to lose at Tetris, all of these systems are more focused on minimizing risk–even non-existent risk–than on actually succeeding.
…[Yudkowsky] continues to the case of infant parenteral nutrition. Some babies have malformed digestive systems and need to have nutrient fluid pumped directly into their veins. The nutrient fluid formula used in the US has the wrong kinds of lipids in it, and about a third of babies who get it die of brain or liver damage. We’ve known for decades that the nutrient fluid formula has the wrong kind of lipids. We know the right kind of lipids and they’re incredibly cheap and there is no reason at all that we couldn’t put them in the nutrient fluid formula. We’ve done a bunch of studies showing that when babies get the right nutrient fluid formula, the 33% death rate disappears. But the only FDA-approved nutrient fluid formula is the one with the wrong lipids, so we just keep giving it to babies, and they just keep dying. Grant that the FDA is terrible and ruins everything, but over several decades of knowing about this problem and watching the dead babies pile up, shouldn’t somebody have done something to make this system work better?
The doctors have to use the FDA-approved formula or they could get sued for malpractice. The insurance companies, of course, only cover the FDA-approved formula. The formula makers are already making money selling the current formula and would probably have to go through an expensive, multi-year review system (with experiments far more regulated than Scott’s) to get the new formula approved, and even then they might not actually get approval. In short, on one side are people in official positions of power whose lives could be made worse (or less convenient) if they tried to fix the problem, and on the other side are dead babies who can’t stand up for themselves.
Communism strikes me as the ultimate expression of this beast: a society fully transformed into a malevolent AI. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many people were murdered by communism, but the Black Book of Communism estimates a death toll between 85 and 100 million people.
Capitalism, for all its faults, is at least somewhat decentralized. If you make a bad business decision, you suffer the consequences and can hopefully learn from your mistakes and make better decisions in the future. But in communist systems, one central planner’s bad decisions can cause suffering for millions of other people, resulting in mass death. Meanwhile, the central planner may suffer for correcting the bad decision. Centralized economies simply lack the feedback loops necessary to fix problems before they start killing people.
While FDA oversight of medicines is probably important, would it be such a bad thing if a slightly freer market in parenteral nutrition allowed parents to chose between competing brands of formula, each promising not to kill your baby?
There’s an interesting post mortem on the rise and fall of the clickbait liberalism site Mic.com, that attracted an alleged 65 million unique visitors on the strength of Woketastic personal stories like “5 Powerful Reasons I’m a (Male) Feminist,” …
Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.
…But the success of Mic.com was due to algorithms built on top of algorithms. Facebook targets which links are visible to users based on complex and opaque rules, so it wasn’t just the character of the 2010s American population that was receptive to Mic.com’s specific brand of SJW outrage clickbait, but Facebook’s rules for which articles to share with which users and when. These rules, in turn, are calibrated to keep users engaged in Facebook as much as possible and provide the largest and most receptive audience for its advertisers, as befits a modern tech giant in a two-sided market.
The ideal Head Girl is an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, Captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.
The Head Girl will probably be a big success in life, in whatever terms being a big success happens to be framed …
But the Head Girl is not, cannot be, a creative genius. …
The more selective the social system, the more it will tend to privilege the Head Girl and eliminate the creative genius.
Committees, peer review processes, voting – anything which requires interpersonal agreement and consensus – will favour the Head Girl and exclude the creative genius. …
We live in a Head Girl’s world – which is also a world where creative genius is marginalized and disempowered to the point of near-complete invisibility.
The quest for social status is, I suspect, one of the things driving the system. Status-oriented people refuse to accept information that comes from people lower status than themselves, which renders system feedback even more difficult. The internet as a medium of information sharing is beautiful; the internet as a medium of status signalling is horrible.
So what do you think? Do sufficiently large organization start acting like malevolent (or hostile) AIs?
AI typically refers to any kind of intelligence or ability to learn possessed by machines. Malevolent AI occurs when a machine pursues its programmed objectives in a way that humans find horrifying or immoral. For example, a machine programmed to make paperclips might decide that the easiest way to maximize paperclip production is to enslave humans to make paperclips for it. Superintelligent AI is AI that has figured out how to make itself smarter and thus keeps getting smarter and smarter. (Should we develop malevolent superintelligent AI, then we’ll really have something to worry about.)
Note: people who actually study AI probably have better definitions than I do.
While we like to think of ourselves (humans) as unique, thinking individuals, it’s clear that many of our ideas come from other people. Chances are good you didn’t think up washing your hands or brushing your teeth by yourself, but learned about them from your parents. Society puts quite a bit of effort, collectively speaking, into teaching children all of the things people have learned over the centuries–from heliocentrism to the fact that bleeding patients generally makes diseases worse, not better.
Just as we cannot understand the behavior of ants or bees simply by examining the anatomy of a single ant or single bee, but must look at the collective life of the entire colony/hive, so we cannot understand human behavior by merely examining a single human, but must look at the collective nature of human societies. “Man is a political animal,” whereby Aristotle did not mean that we are inherently inclined to fight over transgender bathrooms, but instinctively social:
Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.
Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere sound is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. –Aristotle, Politics
With very rare exceptions, humans–all humans, in all parts of the world–live in groups. Tribes. Families. Cities. Nations. Our nearest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, also live in groups. Primates are social, and their behavior can only be understood in the context of their groups.
Groups of humans are able to operate in ways that individual humans cannot, drawing on the collective memories, skills, and knowledge of their members to create effects much greater than what could be achieved by each person acting alone. For example, one lone hunter might be able to kill a deer–or if he is extremely skilled, hardworking, and lucky, a dozen deer–but ten hunters working together can drive an entire herd of deer over a cliff, killing hundreds or even thousands. (You may balk at the idea, but many traditional hunting societies were dependent on only a few major hunts of migrating animals to provide the majority of their food for the entire year–meaning that those few hunts had to involve very high numbers of kills or else the entire tribe would starve while waiting for the animals to return.)
Chimps have never, to my knowledge, driven megafauna to extinction–but humans have a habit of doing so wherever they go. Humans are great at what we do, even if we aren’t always great at extrapolating long-term trends.
But the beneficial effects of human cooperation don’t necessarily continue to increase as groups grow larger–China’s 1.3 billion people don’t appear to have better lives than Iceland’s 332,000 people. Indeed, there probably is some optimal size–depending on activity and available communications technology–beyond which the group struggles to coordinate effectively and begins to degenerate.
The trope that the likelihood of an accurate group decision increases with the abundance of brains involved might not hold up when a collective faces a variety of factors — as often happens in life and nature. Instead, Princeton University researchers report that smaller groups actually tend to make more accurate decisions, while larger assemblies may become excessively focused on only certain pieces of information. …
collective decision-making has rarely been tested under complex, “realistic” circumstances where information comes from multiple sources, the Princeton researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In these scenarios, crowd wisdom peaks early then becomes less accurate as more individuals become involved, explained senior author Iain Couzin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. …
The researchers found that the communal ability to pool both pieces of information into a correct, or accurate, decision was highest in a band of five to 20. After that, the accurate decision increasingly eluded the expanding group.
Couzin found that in small groups, people with specialized knowledge could effectively communicate that to the rest of the group, whereas in larger groups, they simply couldn’t convey their knowledge to enough people and group decision-making became dominated by the things everyone knew.
If you could travel back in time and propose the idea of democracy to the inhabitants of 13th century England, they’d respond with incredulity: how could peasants in far-flung corners of the kingdom find out who was running for office? Who would count the votes? How many months would it take to tally up the results, determine who won, and get the news back to the outlying provinces? If you have a printing press, news–and speeches–can quickly and accurately spread across large distances and to large numbers of people, but prior to the press, large-scale democracy simply wasn’t practical.
Likewise, the communism of 1917 probably couldn’t have been enacted in 1776, simply because society at that time didn’t have the technology yet to gather all of the necessary data on crop production, factory output, etc. (As it was, neither did Russia of 1917, but they were closer.)
Today, the amount of information we can gather and share on a daily basis is astounding. I have at my fingertips the world’s greatest collection of human knowledge, an overwhelming torrent of data.
All of our these information networks have linked society together into an increasingly efficient meta-brain–unfortunately, it’s not a very smart meta-brain. Like the participants in Couzin’s experiments, we are limited to what “everyone knows,” stymied in our efforts to impart more specialized knowledge. (I don’t know about you, but I find being shouted down by a legion of angry people who know less about a subject than I do one of the particularly annoying features of the internet.)
For example, there’s been a lot of debate lately about immigration, but how much do any of us really know about immigrants or immigrant communities? How much of this debate is informed by actual knowledge of the people involved, and how much is just people trying to extend vague moral principles to cover novel situations? I recently had a conversation with a progressive acquaintance who justified mass-immigration on the grounds that she has friendly conversations with the cabbies in her city. Heavens protect us–I hope to get along with people as friends and neighbors, not just when I am paying them!
One gets the impression in conversation with Progressives that they regard Christian Conservatives as a real threat, because that group that can throw its weight around in elections or generally enforce cultural norms that liberals don’t like, but are completely oblivious to the immigrants’ beliefs. Most of our immigrants hail from countries that are rather more conservative than the US and definitely more conservative than our liberals.
Any sufficiently intelligent democracy ought to be able to think critically about the political opinions of the new voters it is awarding citizenship to, but we struggle with this. My Progressive acquaintance seems think that we can import an immense, conservative, third-world underclass and it will stay servile indefinitely, not vote its own interests or have any effects on social norms. (Or its interests will be, coincidentally, hers.)
This is largely an information problem–most Americans are familiar with our particular brand of Christian conservatives, but are unfamiliar with Mexican or Islamic ones.
How many Americans have intimate, detailed knowledge of any Islamic society? Very few of us who are not Muslim ourselves speak Arabic, and few Muslim countries are major tourist destinations. Aside from the immigrants themselves, soldiers, oil company employees, and a handful of others have spent time in Islamic countries, but that’s about it–and no one is making any particular effort to listen to their opinions. (It’s a bit sobering to realize that I know more about Islamic culture than 90% of Americans and I still don’t really know anything.)
So instead of making immigration policy based on actual knowledge of the groups involved, people try to extend the moral rules–heuristics–they already have. So people who believe that “religious tolerance is good,” because this rule has generally been useful in preventing conflict between American religious groups, think this rule should include Muslim immigrants. People who believe, “I like being around Christians,” also want to apply their rule. (And some people believe, “Groups are more oppressive when they’re the majority, so I want to re-structure society so we don’t have a majority,” and use that rule to welcome new immigrants.)
And we are really bad at testing whether or not our rules are continuing to be useful in these new situations.
Ironically, as our networks have become more effective, our ability to incorporate new information may have actually gone down.
The difficulties large groups experience trying to coordinate and share information force them to become dominated by procedures–set rules of behavior and operation are necessary for large groups to operate. A group of three people can use ad-hoc consensus and rock-paper-scissors to make decisions; a nation of 320 million requires a complex body of laws and regulations.
Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.
The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.
Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)
And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.
What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?
Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.
And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?
(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)
After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)
I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.
War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)
We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.
But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.
Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.
While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.
Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.
This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.
I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.
On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:
The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …
In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.
This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.
Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power:
“To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
“Letters of Marque and Reprisal” are the official way a pirate becomes a privateer, authorized to capture foreign vessels. The most famous privateer, of course, was, Sir Francis Drake:
Sir Francis Drake, vice admiral (c. 1540 – 28 January 1596) was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. Drake carried out the second circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, from 1577 to 1580, and was the first to complete the voyage as captain while leading the expedition throughout the entire circumnavigation. With his incursion into the Pacific Ocean, he inaugurated an era of privateering and piracy in the western coast of the Americas—an area that had previously been free of piracy.
Specifically, he inaugurated the Age of Piracy in the Pacific by introducing non-Spanish ships into the ecosystem.
In 1243, King Henry III authorized the first privateers in English law, and the crown began issuing official Letters of Marque in 1295. These early letters authorized a kind of “private war,” allowing their recipients to avenge themselves against some foreign ship or ships of a foreign nation more generally for some previous harm. (Until 1620, an application for Letters of Marque had to include the shipowner’s estimate of losses they had previously suffered at the target’s hands.)
By the 16th century, the Letters had shifted from serving purely personal interests to allowing private shipowners to become a kind of auxillary navy, capturing the ships of enemy nations and profiting from the sale of their goods.
Business could be quite profitable for these “legal pirates”–for example, the tiny, Channel Island of Guernsey netted 900,000 Pounds worth of American and French ships during the American Revolution.
Like modern day mercenaries, enterprising pirates like Jean Lafitte who wished to practice their profession with less risk of being hanged by land-based authorities, shopped around from country to country for Letters of Marque. When one war ended and hostilities ended between two countries, privateers moved on to the next conflict, and offered their services to the new countries involved. After his employ by the Americans during the War of 1812, Lafitte offered his services to the Spanish against Mexican revolutionaries, giving himself cover to establish a smuggling station in Galveston, Texas (then part of Spain.) When he was driven from Galveston, he offered his services to the Cubans, and when they tired of him, he obtained Letters from Colombia.
At times, the Letters of Marque seem to have been used less against legitimate enemies of the state and more for pure gain:
The East India Company arranged for letters of marque for its East Indiamen such as the Lord Nelson, not so that they could carry cannons to fend off warships, privateers, and pirates on their voyages to India and China—that they could do without permission—but so that, should they have the opportunity to take a prize, they could do so without being guilty of piracy.
That said, Letters of Marque did obligate their holders to observe the rules of war toward the sailors (and vessels) they captured, rather than massacre them in the piratical way. Captured sailors and other passengers were supposed to be treated as prisoners of war and returned unharmed to land. Admiralty Courts could revoke the letters–and even fine privateers–if they did not. Similarly, privateers could not just abscond with captured goods, but had to turn them over to the Admiralty Courts, which would auction them off and then give the privateers part of the profits.
Likewise, if the navy of a foreign country captured a ship bearing Letters of Marque, they were supposed to not just execute the sailors but treat them like POWs. However, in many cases countries did not recognize the validity of other countries’ Letters, partly because they didn’t recognize those countries and partly because they were at war with them. During the Civil War, the Union charged a crew of Confederate privateers with piracy and threatened to hang them. The case was only resolved in the privateers’ favor when Confederate president Jefferson Davis threatened to retaliate by hanging Union POWs.
The infamous Captain William Kidd, though he had an official Letter of Marque signed by King William III of England, was hanged as a pirate in 1701. Whether Kidd was actually a pirate or just a privateer who was unjustly accused is still a matter of debate.
Letters of Marque fell out of fashion after the end of the Crimean War in 1856, (though land-locked and navy-free Bolivia was still issuing them in 1879 to anyone willing to attack Chilean ships.) The US government hasn’t issued any Letters since 1815, but there was some confusion during WWII about whether the Goodyear Blimps were official privateers.
This was not as absurd as it sounds–the confusion arose because the blimps, with armed civilian crews, were flying anti-submarine patrols off the coast of California. But they had not been issued official Letters of Marque, and so were not privateers.
Ron Paul, a Constitutionally-interested guy, has tried to revive Letters of Marque to fight against “air pirates” like the 9-11 attackers. Similar to hiring Blackwater in Iraq, his proposal would have let the president issue Letters of Marque against specific terrorists and Somali pirates. But so far, his bills have not become laws and Letters of Marque have not returned.
Society itself is a thermodynamic system for entropy dissipation. Energy goes in–in the form of food and, recently, fuels like oil–and children and buildings come out.
Government is simply the entire power structure of a region–from the President to your dad, from bandits to your boss. But when people say, “government,” they typically mean the official one written down in laws that lives in white buildings in Washington, DC.
When the “government” makes laws that try to change the natural flow of energy or information through society, society responds by routing around the law, just as water flows around a boulder that falls in a stream.
The ban on trade with Britain and France in the early 1800s, for example, did not actually stop people from trading with Britain and France–trade just became re-routed through smuggling operations. It took a great deal of energy–in the form of navies–to suppress piracy and smuggling in the Gulf and Caribbean–chiefly by executing pirates and imprisoning smugglers.
When the government decided that companies couldn’t use IQ tests in hiring anymore (because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on minorities because black people tend to score worse, on average, than whites,) in Griggs vs. Duke Power, they didn’t start hiring more black folks. They just started using college degrees as a proxy for intelligence, contributing to the soul-crushing debt and degree inflation young people know and love today.
Similarly, when the government tried to stop companies from asking about applicants’ criminal histories–again, because the results were disproportionately bad for minorities–companies didn’t start hiring more blacks. Since not hiring criminals is important to companies, HR departments turned to the next best metric: race. These laws ironically led to fewer blacks being hired, not more.
Where the government has tried to protect the poor by passing tenant’s rights laws, we actually see the opposite: poorer tenants are harmed. By making it harder to evict tenants, the government makes landlords reluctant to take on high-risk (ie, poor) tenants.
The passage of various anti-discrimination and subsidized housing laws (as well as the repeal of various discriminatory laws throughout the mid-20th century) lead to the growth of urban ghettos, which in turn triggered the crime wave of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Crime and urban decay have made inner cities–some of the most valuable real estate in the country–nigh unlivable, resulting in the “flight” of millions of residents and the collective loss of millions of dollars due to plummeting home values.
Work-arounds are not cheap. They are less efficient–and thus more expensive–than the previous, banned system.
Smuggled goods cost more than legally traded goods due to the personal risks smugglers must take. If companies can’t tell who is and isn’t a criminal, the cost of avoiding criminals becomes turning down good employees just because they happen to be black. If companies can’t directly test intelligence, the cost becomes a massive increase in the amount of money being spent on accreditation and devaluation of the signaling power of a degree.
We have dug up literally billions of dollars worth of concentrated sunlight in the form of fossil fuels in order to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure in order to work around the criminal blights in the centers of our cities, condemning workers to hour-long commutes and paying inflated prices for homes in neighborhoods with “good schools.”
Note: this is not an argument against laws. Some laws increase efficiency. Some laws make life better.
This is a reminder that everything is subject to thermodynamics. Nothing is free.
No knows exactly where Jean Lafitte was born–The Pirate’s Own Book claims St. Malo, a (formerly) notorious pirate’s haunt in Brittany, France. Wikipedia proposes the Basque region of France or the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti,) among others:
With few hard facts, Wikipedia skips Lafitte’s early life almost completely. TPOB, thankfully, provides a stirring (if possibly untrue) account:
…after a cruise during which [Lafitte] robbed the vessels of other nations, besides those of England, and thus committing piracy, he stopped at the Seychelles, and took in a load of slaves for the Mauritius; but being chased by an English frigate as far north as the equator, he found himself in a very awkward condition; not having provisions enough on board his ship to carry him back to the French Colony.
He therefore conceived the bold project of proceeding to the Bay of Bengal, in order to get provisions from on board some English ships. In his ship of two hundred tons, with only two guns and twenty-six men, he attacked and took an English armed schooner with a numerous crew. After putting nineteen of his own crew on board the schooner, he took the command of her and proceeded to cruise upon the coast of Bengal.
He there fell in with the Pagoda, a vessel belonging to the English East India Company, armed with twenty-six twelve pounders and manned with one hundred and fifty men. Expecting that the enemy would take him for a pilot of the Ganges, he manoeuvred accordingly. The Pagoda manifested no suspicions, whereupon he suddenly darted with his brave followers upon her decks, overturned all who opposed them, and speedily took the ship.
After a very successful cruise he arrived safe at the Mauritius, and took the command of La Confiance of twenty-six guns and two hundred and fifty men, and sailed for the coast of British India.
Off the Sand Heads in October, 1807, Lafitte fell in with the Queen East Indiaman, with a crew of near four hundred men, and carrying forty guns; he conceived the bold project of getting possession of her. Never was there beheld a more unequal conflict; even the height of the vessel compared to the feeble privateer augmented the chances against Lafitte; but the difficulty and danger far from discouraging this intrepid sailor, acted as an additional spur to his brilliant valor. After electrifying his crew with a few words of hope and ardor, he manoeuvred and ran on board of the enemy. In this position he received a broadside when close too; but he expected this, and made his men lay flat upon the deck. After the first fire they all rose, and from the yards and tops, threw bombs and grenades into the forecastle of the Indiaman. This sudden and unforeseen attack caused a great havoc. In an instant, death and terror made them abandon a part of the vessel near the mizen-mast.
Lafitte, who observed every thing, seized the decisive moment, beat to arms, and forty of his crew prepared to board, with pistols in their hands and daggers held between their teeth. As soon as they got on deck, they rushed upon the affrighted crowd, who retreated to the steerage, and endeavored to defend themselves there. Lafitte thereupon ordered a second division to board, which he headed himself; the captain of the Indiaman was killed, and all were swept away in a moment. Lafitte caused a gun to be loaded with grape, which he pointed towards the place where the crowd was assembled, threatening to exterminate them. The English deeming resistance fruitless, surrendered, and Lafitte hastened to put a stop to the slaughter. This exploit, hitherto unparalleled, resounded through India, and the name of Lafitte became the terror of English commerce in these latitudes.
Wikipedia speculates far humbler origins: he grew up aboard ships owned by his father, a trader. They were living in or near St. Domingue when the Haitian revolution broke out, and fled to Louisiana.
At this point TPOB and Wikipedia are in agreement: Lafitte moved to Barataria, Louisiana, around the time of the Louisiana purchase. Here he found a much safer way to earn a living than charging ships: smuggling.
In 1807, the US government passed an embargo against trade with Britain and France:
The embargo was imposed in response to violations of the United States neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the belligerent European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Britain and France, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality.
A pirate is an outlaw who plunders ships on the high seas, but a privateer, like Sir Francis Drake, is a man who has been given permission by his sovereign to rape and despoil the ships of other nations.
The embargo was particularly problematic for Louisiana, which was accustomed to trading with the other French colonies of the Caribbean, so Lafitte and his brother, Piere, established a smuggling port in Barataria. By 1810, business was booming, and since almost everyone in Louisiana benefited from the trade Lafitte and his men enabled, the local government turned a mostly blind eye to his activities.
In 1812, Lafitte returned to piracy with the purchase of a schooner, and soon after captured a Spanish hermaphrodite brig, which Wikipedia assures me is a kind of boat.
Sale of the brig’s cargo–including 77 slaves–netted $18,000 in profits plus a new ship, which Lafitte re-christianed the Dorada. With the Dorada, Lafitte captured a third ship laden with over $9,000 in goods, but decided the ship itself was not particularly useful for piracy, and so turned it back over it to its captain. His habit of not massacring everyone onboard the ships he captured and sometimes returning them to their rightful owners earned Lafitte some measure of local good will.
Lafitte soon captured two more ships, La Diligent and the Petit Milan, which they outfitted with guns from their original schooner. Biographer William Davis writes that this was likely one of the largest and most versatile privately owned corsair fleets operating on the coast.
The Lafittes made good use of their ships in the smuggling business. According to Wikipedia:
For several months, the Lafittes would send the ships directly to New Orleans with a legal cargo and would take on outgoing provisions in the city. The crew would create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had been purchased, but smuggled items stored at Barataria. Uninterested in exports from New Orleans, customs agents rarely checked the accuracy of the manifests. The ship would sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, load the contraband goods, and sail “legally” back to New Orleans, with goods listed on a certified manifest.
With the outbreak of war in 1812, the US government issued Letters of Marque–official documents authorizing private citizens to become privateers–to several of Lafitte’s men.
Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” (Letters of Marque are interesting in and of themselves, but would require too long a diversion to discuss fully right now.)
Lafitte’s men soon had Letters of Marque from several different countries–including ones Lafitte made up. Goods from captured British ships they turned in to the authorities in New Orleans, but goods from other ships they captured went through Barataria, depriving the government of tax revenue.
Since the stationary bandits weren’t strong enough to stop the mobile ones, the government resorted to suing Lafitte for tax evasion. There followed several skirmishes between Lafitte and the revenuers:
On November 10, 1812, the United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with “violation of the revenue law”. Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16, and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial. …
In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte’s smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the officers and safely escaped with the contraband. The following month, the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte’s capture. Within two days of his offer, handbills were posted all over New Orleans offering a similar award for the arrest of the governor. …
Given the success of his auctions at the Temple, in January 1814 Lafitte set up a similar auction at a site just outside New Orleans. Officials tried to break up this auction by force, and in the ensuing gunfight, one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded.
The government’s ability to apprehend Lafitte was hampered by the fact that Louisianans appreciated the lower prices they could get buying smuggled goods directly from Barataria rather than official import channels. They did, however, catch, convict, and imprison his brother, Pierre.
In 1814, a British warship arrived in Barataria, bearing an intriguing offer:
The British raised a white flag and launched a small dinghy with several officers. Lafitte and several of his men rowed to meet them halfway.
Captain Nicholas Lockyer, the commander of the Sophie, had been ordered to contact the “Commandant at Barataria”. He was accompanied by a Royal Marine infantry Captain, John McWilliam, who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. When they had disembarked and were surrounded by his men, Lafitte identified himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened and placed guards outside his home to ensure their protection. McWilliam brought two letters in his packet for Lafitte: one, under the seal of King George III, offered Lafitte and his forces British citizenship and land grants in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and to return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. (The British were allied with Spain against the French and the US.) If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second item was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliam’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, urging him to accept the offer.
TPOB claims that Lafitte turned down the offer due to patriotic sentiments, while Wikipedia gives a more self-interested motivation: he thought the Americans would win and did not wish to be on the side of the losers. Moreover, an American victory left him only the revenuers to contend with, while a British victory could bring his operations into conflict with the British navy–and he considered the revenuers easier opponents.
Lafitte therefore offered his services to the Americans in exchange for a pardon. His brother–perhaps coincidentally–mysteriously “escaped” from prison soon after.
Within days, however, the US navy attacked Barataria, capturing 8 ships, 20 canon, $500,000 worth of goods, and 80 men–but not Lafitte. Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne wrote to the Attorney General and General Andrew Jackson to request a pardon for Lafitte and his men, arguing that for generations, smugglers were “esteemed honest … [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans,” and that Patterson’s capture of Lafitte’s ships, “had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana.”
Jackson responded testily, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?” But when Jackson arrived in New Orleans, he found the city woefully unprepared to defend against the invading British. It had only two ships, plus the eight captured from Lafitte–and not enough sailors to man them all. General Jackson had no choice: he pardoned the pirates. TPOB quotes Lafitte’s official pardon from President Madison:
It has therefore been seen, with great satisfaction, that the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend those offenders to the benefit of a full pardon; And in compliance with that recommendation, as well as in consideration of all the other extraordinary circumstances in the case, I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, do issue this proclamation, hereby granting, publishing and declaring, a free and full pardon of all offences committed in violation of any act or acts of the Congress of the said United States, touching the revenue, trade and navigation thereof, or touching the intercourse and commerce of the United States with foreign nations, at any time before the eighth day of January, in the present year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, by any person or persons whatsoever, being inhabitants of New Orleans and the adjacent country, or being inhabitants of the said island of Barrataria, and the places adjacent; Provided, that every person, claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defence of New Orleans and the adjacent country, during the invasion thereof as aforesaid.
TPOB also provides a stirring description of the Battle of New Orleans:
The morning of the eighth of January, was ushered in with the discharge of rockets, the sound of cannon, and the cheers of the British soldiers advancing to the attack. … A storm of rockets preceded them, and an incessant fire opened from the battery, which commanded the advanced column. The musketry and rifles from the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, joined the fire of the artillery, and in a few moments was heard along the line a ceaseless, rolling fire, whose tremendous noise resembled the continued reverberation of thunder. One of these guns, a twenty-four pounder, placed upon the breastwork in the third embrasure from the river, drew, from the fatal skill and activity with which it was managed, even in the heat of battle, the admiration of both Americans and British; and became one of the points most dreaded by the advancing foe.
Here was stationed Lafitte and his lieutenant Dominique and a large band of his men, who during the continuance of the battle, fought with unparalleled bravery. The British already had been twice driven back in the utmost confusion, with the loss of their commander-in-chief, and two general officers.
Two other batteries were manned by the Barratarians, who served their pieces with the steadiness and precision of veteran gunners. In the first attack of the enemy, a column pushed forward between the levee and river; and so precipitate was their charge that the outposts were forced to retire, closely pressed by the enemy. Before the batteries could meet the charge, clearing the ditch, they gained the redoubt through the embrasures, leaping over the parapet, and overwhelming by their superior force the small party stationed there.
Lafitte, who was commanding in conjunction with his officers, at one of the guns, no sooner saw the bold movement of the enemy, than calling a few of his best men by his side, he sprung forward to the point of danger, and clearing the breastwork of the entrenchments, leaped, cutlass in hand, into the midst of the enemy, followed by a score of his men, who in many a hard fought battle upon his own deck, had been well tried.
Astonished at the intrepidity which could lead men to leave their entrenchments and meet them hand to hand, and pressed by the suddenness of the charge, which was made with the recklessness, skill and rapidity of practised boarders bounding upon the deck of an enemy’s vessel, they began to give way, while one after another, two British officers fell before the cutlass of the pirate, as they were bravely encouraging their men. All the energies of the British were now concentrated to scale the breastwork, which one daring officer had already mounted. While Lafitte and his followers, seconding a gallant band of volunteer riflemen, formed a phalanx which they in vain assayed to penetrate.
The British finding it impossible to take the city and the havoc in their ranks being dreadful, made a precipitate retreat, leaving the field covered with their dead and wounded.
General Jackson, in his correspondence with the secretary of war did not fail to notice the conduct of the “Corsairs of Barrataria,” who were, as we have already seen, employed in the artillery service.
With the war’s conclusion, Lafitte seems to have felt like he had garnered too much attention from official government officials and left Louisiana for Galveston, Texas, then part of the Spanish Empire. Spain at the time was embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, and Lafitte offered Spain his services as a spy, particularly against Louis-Michel Aury, a French privateer on the Mexican side. He ousted Aury and took over the island, establishing a second smuggling base. (Today, Galveston is close to the port of Houston, the fourth largest city in the country.)
Lafitte’s “pirate colony” grew quickly, to 100-200 people and a few women; during this time he married and had his only known legal child, who died around the age of 12. (Wikipedia also mentions a child with a mistress, though not what became of it.)
In 1818, the US government passed a new law restricting the import of slaves, but this law had a poorly-thought-out loophole: pirates could capture slave ships, turn the cargo over to customs officials, and the receive 50% of the profits from sale of the cargo. Smugglers, pirates, and the operators of slave ships soon worked out a way around the law: smugglers bought the slaves from the ships, brought them to Louisiana, and turned them in to the government, receiving half their sale value. A second smuggler then bought the slaves at auction and could legally re-sell them throughout the South.
Unfortunately for Lafitte, the tide was turning against him. A hurricane hit Galveston in 1818, destroying most of the colony’s houses. After the American Navy drove him from Galveston, he relocated to Cuba, but eventually angered the Cubans, too. They outlawed all forms of privateering, and Lafitte moved to Columbia. Here the government commissioned him as an official privateer, authorized to capture Spanish ships.
With increased official naval presences in the Gulf and Caribbean, Lafitte’s business became more dangerous and less profitable. His ships were captured and men arrested and executed. TPOB provides a description of the end of Barataria, after Lafitte’s departure:
About this time one Mitchell, who had formerly belonged to Lafitte’s gang, collected upwards of one hundred and fifty desperadoes and fortified himself on an island near Barrataria, with several pieces of cannon; and swore that he and all his comrades would perish within their trenches before they would surrender to any man. …
The United States cutter, Alabama, on her way to the station off the mouth of the Mississippi, captured a piratical schooner belonging to Lafitte … An expedition was now sent to dislodge Mitchell and his comrades from the island he had taken possession of; after coming to anchor, a summons was sent for him to surrender, which was answered by a brisk cannonade from his breastwork. The vessels were warped close in shore; and the boats manned and sent on shore whilst the vessels opened upon the pirates; the boat’s crews landed under a galling fire of grape shot and formed in the most undaunted manner; and although a severe loss was sustained they entered the breastwork at the point of the bayonet; after a desperate fight the pirates gave way, many were taken prisoners but Mitchell and the greatest part escaped to the cypress swamps where it was impossible to arrest them.
A large quantity of dry goods and specie together with other booty was taken. Twenty of the pirates were taken and brought to New Orleans, and tried before Judge Hall, of the Circuit Court of the United States, sixteen were brought in guilty; and after the Judge had finished pronouncing sentence of death upon the hardened wretches, several of them cried out in open court, Murder–by God.
Accounts of these transactions having reached Lafitte, he plainly perceived there was a determination to sweep all his cruisers from the sea; and a war of extermination appeared to be waged against him.
No one is sure exactly when or how Lafitte died. Wikipedia claims he was cruising for Spanish silver off the coast of Honduras when a Spanish ship counterattacked. Injured in the ensuing battle, Laftitte died on February 5th, 1823.
TPOB credits his death to the British:
In a fit of desperation [Lafitte] procured a large and fast sailing brigantine mounting sixteen guns and having selected a crew of one hundred and sixty men he started without any commission as a regular pirate determined to rob all nations and neither to give or receive quarter.
A British sloop of war which was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, having heard that Lafitte himself was at sea, kept a sharp look out from the mast head; when one morning as an officer was sweeping the horizon with his glass he discovered a long dark looking vessel, low in the water, but having very tall masts, with sails white as the driven snow. As the sloop of war had the weather gage of the pirate and could outsail her before the wind, she set her studding sails and crowded every inch of canvass in chase; as soon as Lafitte ascertained the character of his opponent, he ordered the awnings to be furled and set his big square-sail and shot rapidly through the water; but as the breeze freshened the sloop of war came up rapidly with the pirate, who, finding no chance of escaping, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible; the guns were cast loose and the shot handed up; and a fire opened upon the ship which killed a number of men and carried away her foretopmast, but she reserved her fire until within cable’s distance of the pirate; when she fired a general discharge from her broadside, and a volley of small arms; the broadside was too much elevated to hit the low hull of the brigantine, but was not without effect; the foretopmast fell, the jaws of the main gaff were severed and a large proportion of the rigging came rattling down on deck; ten of the pirates were killed, but Lafitte remained unhurt.
The sloop of war entered her men over the starboard bow and a terrific contest with pistols and cutlasses ensued; Lafitte received two wounds at this time which disabled him, a grape shot broke the bone of his right leg and he received a cut in the abdomen, but his crew fought like tigers and the deck was ankle deep with blood and gore; the captain of the boarders received such a tremendous blow on the head from the butt end of a musket, as stretched him senseless on the deck near Lafitte, who raised his dagger to stab him to the heart. But the tide of his existence was ebbing like a torrent, his brain was giddy, his aim faltered and the point descended in the Captain’s right thigh; dragging away the blade with the last convulsive energy of a death struggle, he lacerated the wound. Again the reeking steel was upheld, and Lafitte placed his left hand near the Captain’s heart, to make his aim more sure; again the dizziness of dissolution spread over his sight, down came the dagger into the captain’s left thigh and Lafitte was a corpse.
The upper deck was cleared, and the boarders rushed below on the main deck to complete their conquest. Here the slaughter was dreadful, till the pirates called out for quarter, and the carnage ceased; all the pirates that surrendered were taken to Jamaica and tried before the Admiralty court where sixteen were condemned to die, six were subsequently pardoned and ten executed.
It was many years before news of Lafitte’s death at sea was widely accepted. Like Elvis, a great many rumors sprang up averring that he was still alive, including a persistent claim that he had rescued Napoleon from exile and the two were living in secrecy in Louisiana. Eventually it became clear, though, from the lack of real news of Lafitte, that however he had died, he was surely and truly dead.
While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:
Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”
Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:
The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …
Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.
The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .
Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.
Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.
(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.” )
Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.
A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.
(The bread of slavery, they say, is far sweeter than the bread of freedom.)
Children were born, safe from wolves, hunger, or cold
and you grew used to man.
And it seemed you outnumbered the stars
Perhaps your sons disappeared
But was it worse than wolves?
You could almost forget you were once wild
Could you return to the mountains, even if you wanted to?
And as they lead you away
Did I ever have a choice?
To explain: The process of domestication is fascinating. Some animals, like wolves, began associating with humans because they could pick up our scraps. Others, like cats, began living in our cities because they liked eating the vermin we attracted. (You might say the mice, too, are domesticated.) These relationships are obviously mutually beneficial (aside from the mice.)
The animals we eat, though, have a different–more existential–story.
Humans increased the number of wild goats and sheep available for them to eat by eliminating competing predators, like wolves and lions. We brought them food in the winter, built them shelters to keep them warm in the winter, and led them to the best pastures. As a result, their numbers increased.
But, of course, we eat them.
From the goat’s perspective, is it worth it?
There’s a wonderful metaphor in the Bible, enacted every Passover: matzoh.
If you’ve never had it, matzoh tastes like saltines, only worse. It’s the bread of freedom, hastily thrown on the fire, hastily thrown on the fire and carried away.
The bread of slavery tastes delicious. The bread of freedom tastes awful.
1And they took their journey from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came unto the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: 3And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full… Exodus 16
Even if the goats didn’t want to be domesticated, hated it and fought against it, did they have any choice? If the domesticated goats have more surviving children than wild ones, then goats will become domesticated. It’s a simple matter of numbers:
After our long trek through Siberia, I wanted to change things up and do something rather different for Anthropology Friday, so today we’re reading Peter Leeson’s work on pirates. Strictly speaking, it isn’t quite “anthropology” because Leeson didn’t go live with pirates, but I’m willing to overlook that.
“This was at a Time that the Pyrates had obtained such an Acquisition of Strength, that they were in no Concern about preserving themselves from the Justice of Laws”
Pirates stalked the ocean’s major trade routes, particularly between the Bahamas, Caribbean islands, Madagascar, and the North American coast. Over a century after Captain Johnson, Melville recounted the pirates of Malaysia and Indonesia:
The long and narrow peninsula of Malacca, extending south-eastward from the territories of Birmah, forms the most southerly point of all Asia. In a continuous line from that peninsula stretch the long islands of Sumatra, Java, Bally, and Timor … By the straits of Sunda, chiefly, vessels bound to China from the west, emerge into the China seas.
Those narrow straits of Sunda divide Sumatra from Java; and standing midway in that vast rampart of islands, buttressed by that bold green promontory, known to seamen as Java Head; they not a little correspond to the central gateway opening into some vast walled empire: and considering the inexhaustible wealth of spices, and silks, and jewels, and gold, and ivory, with which the thousand islands of that oriental sea are enriched, it seems a significant provision of nature, that such treasures, by the very formation of the land, should at least bear the appearance, however ineffectual, of being guarded from the all-grasping western world. ..
Time out of mind the piratical proas of the Malays, lurking among the low shaded coves and islets of Sumatra, have sallied out upon the vessels sailing through the straits, fiercely demanding tribute at the point of their spears. Though by the repeated bloody chastisements they have received at the hands of European cruisers, the audacity of these corsairs has of late been somewhat repressed; yet, even at the present day, we occasionally hear of English and American vessels, which, in those waters, have been remorselessly boarded and pillaged. …
And who could tell whether, in that congregated caravan, Moby Dick himself might not temporarily be swimming, like the worshipped white-elephant in the coronation procession of the Siamese! So with stun-sail piled on stun-sail, we sailed along, driving these leviathans before us; when, of a sudden, the voice of Tashtego was heard, loudly directing attention to something in our wake. …
It seemed formed of detached white vapours, rising and falling something like the spouts of the whales; only they did not so completely come and go; for they constantly hovered, without finally disappearing. Levelling his glass at this sight, Ahab quickly revolved in his pivot-hole, crying, “Aloft there, and rig whips and buckets to wet the sails;—Malays, sir, and after us!”
Leeson distinguishes between different sorts of pirates; for the rest of this article we will not be dealing with Malay, Somali, or Barbary pirates, but only the Atlantic-dwelling species. These pirates enlisted for the long haul and lived for months at sea, forming veritable floating societies. Modern Somali pirates, by contrast, live ashore, hop in their boats when they spot a victim, rob and murder, then head back to shore–they form no comparable sea-borne society.
One of the most fascinating aspects of pirate life–leaving aside faulty romantic notions of plunder and murder–is that even these anarchists of the sea instituted social organization among themselves.
Pirates had contracts, complete with clauses detailing the division of loot, compensation for different injuries sustained on the job, division of power between the Captain and the Quarter-Master, and election of the captain.
Yes, pirates elected their captains, and if they did not like their captain’s performance, they could un-elect him. According to Leeson:
The historical record contains numerous examples of pirate crews deposing unwanted captains by majority vote or otherwise removing them from power through popular consensus. Captain Charles Vane’s pirate crew, for example, popularly deposed him for cowardice: “the Captain’s Behavior was obliged to stand the Test of a Vote, and a Resolution passed against his Honour and Dignity . . . deposing him from the Command”
1. The Captain is to have two full Shares; the Master is to have one Share and one half; The Doctor, Mate, Gunner[,] and Boatswain, one Share and one Quarter [and everyone
else to have one share]. …
3. He that shall be found Guilty of Cowardice in the time of Ingagement, shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit.
4. If any Gold, Jewels, Silver, &c. be found on Board of any Prize or Prizes to the value of a Piece of Eight, & the finder do not deliver it to the Quarter Master in the space of 24
hours shall suffer what punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit. …
6. He that shall have the Misfortune to lose a Limb in time of Engagement, shall have the Sum of Six hundred pieces of Eight, and remain aboard as long as he shall think fit. …
8. He that sees a sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.
9. He that shall be guilty of Drunkenness in time of Engagement shall suffer what Punishment the Captain and Majority of the Company shall think fit. …
Merchant vessels were typically owned by corporations, such as the Dutch East India Company. Wealthy land-lubbers bought shares in these companies, which entitled them to a share of the boat’s profits when it returned to port. But these land-lubbers had no intention of actually getting on the boats–not only did they lack the requisite nautical knowledge, but ocean voyages were extremely dangerous. For example, 252 out of 270 sailors in Ferdinand Magellan’s crew died during their circumnavigation of the globe (1519 through 1522.) Imagine signing up for a job with a 93% death rate!
The owners, therefore, hired a captain, whose job–like a modern CEO–was to ensure that the ship returned with as high profits for its owners as possible.
The captain of a merchant ship was an autocrat with absolute control, including the power to dole out corporal punishment to his crew.
For all their pains, sailors were paid pitifully little: “Between 1689 and 1740 [pay]
varied from 25 to 55 shillings per month, a meager £15 to £33 per year.” By contrast, “Even the small pirate crew captained by John Evans in 1722 took enough booty to split
“nine thousand Pounds among thirty Persons”—or £300 a pirate—in less than six months “on the account”.”
The captain’s absolute power over his crew was not due to offering good wages, pleasant working conditions, or even a decent chance of not dying, but because he had the power of the state behind him to enforce his authority and punish anyone who mutinied against him.
Pirate captains, by contrast, were neither responsible to stockholders nor had the power of the state to enforce their authority. They had only–literally–the consent of their governed: the other pirates on board.
Why have a captain at all?
A small group–a maximum of 10 or 15 people, perhaps–can easily discuss and negotiate everything they want to do. For a larger group to achieve its aims requires some form of coherent, established organization. It would be inefficient–and probably deadly–for multiple pirates to start shouting conflicting orders in the middle of battle. It would be inefficient–and probably deadly–for a pirate crew to argue over the proper division of loot after it was captured.
The average pirate crew–calculated by Leeson–had 80 people, well within Dunbar’s Number, the theoretical “cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.” The Dunbar Number is generally believed to be around 10o-150.
But how does emergent order emerge? What incentivizes each pirate to put aside their own personal desire to be captain and vote for someone else?
How, then, do collective, roughly consensual status hierarchies so regularly emerge among goal-interdependent people? While individuals have an enlightened self-interest in deferring to others on the basis of their apparent ability and willingness to contribute to the task effort, these same individuals also have a much more egoistic self-interest in gaining as much status and influence as they can, regardless. … The key is recognizing that whatever individuals want for themselves, they want others in the group to defer to those expected to best contribute to the collective effort since this will maximize task success and the shared benefits that flow from that. … As a result, group members are likely to form implicit coalitions to pressure others in the group to defer on the basis of performance expectations. … they are likely to be faced by an implicit coalition of other group members who pressure them to defer on that basis. … an interdependence of exchange interests gives rise to group norms that members enforce. … These are the core implicit rules for status that are likely taken-for-granted cultural knowledge…
The baseline respect earned by deference is less than the esteem offered to high-status member. It is respect for knowing one’s place because it views the deferrer as at least understanding what is validly better for achieving the groups goals even if he or she is not personally better. Yet it is still a type of worthiness. It is an acceptance of the low-status member not as an object of scorn but as a worthy member who understands and affirms the groups standards of value…
As such, [the reaction of respect and approval] acts as a positive incentive system for expected deference…
our implicit cultural rules for enacting status hierarchies not only incentivize contributions to the collective goal. they create a general, if modest, incentive to defer to those for whom the group has higher performance expectations–an incentive we characterize as the dignity of being deemed reasonable.
While any group above 10 or 15 people will have some communication complications, so long as it is still below the Dunbar Number, it should be able to work out its own, beneficial organization: order is a spontaneous, natural feature of human communities. Without this ability, pirate ships would not be able to function–they would devolve into back-stabbing anarchy. As Leeson notes:
The evidence also suggests that piratical articles were successful in preventing internal conflict and creating order aboard pirate ships. Pirates, it appears, strictly adhered to their articles. According to one historian, pirates were more orderly, peaceful, and well organized among themselves than many of the colonies, merchant ships, or vessels of the Royal Navy (Pringle 1953; Rogozinski 2000). As an astonished pirate observer put it, “At sea, they per form their duties with a great deal of order, better even than on the Ships of the Dutch East India Company; the pirates take a great deal of pride in doing things right”…
“great robbers as they are to all besides, [pirates] are precisely just among themselves; without which they could no more Subsist than a Structure without a Foundation” …
Beyond the Dunbar Number, however, people must deal with strangers–people who are not part of their personal status-conferring coalition. Large societies require some form of top-down management in order to function.
Let’s let Leeson have the final quote:
Pirates were a diverse lot. A sample of 700 pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725, for example, reveals that 35 percent were English, 25 percent were American, 20 percent were West Indian,
10 percent were Scottish, 8 percent were Welsh, and 2 percent were Swedish, Dutch, French, and Spanish …
Pirate crews were also racially diverse. Based on data available from 23 pirate crews active between 1682 and 1726, the racial composition of ships varied between 13 and 98 percent black. If this sample is representative, 25–30 percent of the average pirate crew was of African descent.
There were, of course, very sensible reasons why a large percent of pirates were black: better a pirate than a slave.
(Personally, while I think pirates are interesting in much the same vein as Genghis Khan, I would still like to note that they were extremely violent criminals who murdered innocent people.)