Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Solve the Pirate Issue, more thoughts

In the face of piracy, there has been disagreement about how best to respond. One solution suggested is to arm merchant ships. If I were unfamiliar with this, I'd be surprised that anyone would be heading into pirate waters not armed to the teeth. Unfortunately. there are issues with this strategy. The New Republic:
Among other issues, ship owners fret about the fact that most merchant sailors lack combat training, that a large cache of guns might make their vessels a target for marauders specifically trolling for weapons, that on-board firefights could lead to accidental fires or other disasters, that any move toward arming ships could provoke an unwinnable arms race with well-funded pirates, and that many ports' severe restrictions against vessels' docking with on-board arsenals could complicate shipping routes.

The post suggests that some of these problems would be easier if snipers were hired instead of handing out guns to the untrained merchant marine.
The most ridiculous objection to arming merchants ships comes from rush Limbaugh, who fears that arming sailors will lead to class-based fragging of captains (the captain is the CEO of the ship, you see). If this were the case, one would expect to see, and the left indoctrinates people to hate CEOs). If this is the case, why aren't people in our heavily armed nation shooting real CEOs?
This post discusses the entire crisis, and this one examines the trade-offs of appeasing the pirates vs confronting them. To me (and I think most other people), paying the ransom is the worst possible strategy , because it would provide reward that make the piracy business worthwhile. The post seems to concede that.
One significant problem is the low cost of entry into the piracy business. It would be much better if a single pirate leader controlled entry. Then we could do business with him, paying him a tribute (we might prefer to call it a “toll”) in return for a promise not to molest our ships. As a monopolist, he would have an incentive to limit “production” of piratical activity, relative to the unregulated market we currently live in. The monopolist essentially would be selling passage off the coast of Somalia, and would be constrained by competition from people who control alternative routes (which, unfortunately, seems limited). We might even expect the pirates to start organizing, or fighting among themselves, in an effort to establish a single firm that could obtain these monopoly rents. In the happy event that an organization emerged, we could call it a “state” and deal with it as we deal with any other state—paying it or pressuring to act as we want it to act, in light of its interests and capacities. We could even call this state “Somalia.” If the gains from rational management of this newly discovered resource—the power to block important sea lanes—provide sufficient incentives for Somalia’s warring clans to make a deal and reestablish a state that can control entry into the market, we should be sure to keep paying Somalia money (we might call it “foreign aid” if “tribute” or even “toll” is too irksome) rather than yield to the temptation to smash it to pieces. In the state system, sometimes you do better with an enemy than without one.

But that outcome is a long way off. In the meantime, governments will have to employ an unsatisfactory combination of carrots and sticks—mounting expensive patrols that spot and pick off pirates on occasion, while paying ransoms to those pirates who succeed.

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