Marque and Reprisal

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Tim Fernholtz observes that the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which I’m mostly familiar with from its work in the booming field of climate change denialism, has put out an innovative approach to the pirate situationmore pirates:

Washington, D.C., April 9, 2009— News that Somali pirates had seized an American ship and, after being repelled, held her captain hostage drew a response from analysts at the Competitive Enterprise Institute: the United States should consider authorizing private parties to attack pirate ships under little used instruments called “letters of marque and reprisal.” […]

The world has changed a lot since nations last made significant use of letters of marquee and reprisal. If Congress were to decide to issue them, it would certainly have to revisit the concept,” said CEI Senior Fellow Eli Lehrer. “It’s the type of free-market solution to a real problem that Congress should consider but hasn’t in any serious way.” Lehrer added.

This seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of how such letters work. You could imagine a situation in which, say, Venezuela decided it was pissed off at Saudi Arabia. Venezuela might start issuing “letters of marque and reprisal”—basically licenses to pirate—to private citizens interests in seizing Saudi oil tankers. If people took Venezuela up on the offer, this would probably reduce the volume of Saudi oil exports, thus simultaneously hurting Saudi Arabia and helping Venezuela by boosting the price of their own exports. Of course the Venezuelans would be opening themselves up to a global military response—war for oil and so forth. The point here, though, is that Saudi ships are full of valuable stuff, namely oil. Nobody in their right mind would want authorization to try to seize control of Somali pirate boats. They’re tiny and worthless. All of Somalia is desperately poor. Nobody wants to rob them.