Peter Leeson

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Peter Leeson
Peter T. Leeson.jpg
Born (1979-07-29) July 29, 1979 (age 41)
InstitutionUniversity of Chicago
George Mason University
West Virginia University
Alma materHillsdale College
George Mason University
InfluencesGary Becker, Ludwig von Mises, George Stigler, Gordon Tullock
ContributionsThe Invisible Hook
Information at IDEAS / RePEc

Peter T. Leeson (born July 29, 1979) is the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law at George Mason University.[1] Big Think listed him among "Eight of the World's Top Young Economists,"[2] and IDEAS/RePEc ranks him among the top 5% of economists in the world.[3] He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.[4]

Leeson is known for extending rational choice theory into unusual domains, such as to the study of bizarre rituals and superstitions, and to the behavior of Caribbean pirates.[5][6][7][8][9][10] Steven Levitt has described Leeson's work as "Freakonomics on steroids"[11][12] and described Leeson as "one of the most creative young economists around."[13] Previously, he held faculty positions at West Virginia University and the University of Chicago.

Life and education[edit]

Leeson began writing about economics as a teenager:

In 1997, Mackinac Center for Public Policy President Lawrence W. Reed read an articulate letter to the editor…that scolded a previous writer for poor economic analysis of a public policy issue. Reed contacted the writer, assuming that he was a professor of some sort. In fact, the author was a 17-year-old Dow High School student, Peter Leeson.[14]

As an 18-year-old, Leeson was invited by an economics professor at Northwood University to lecture in his course.[14]

Leeson earned a B.A. in economics at Hillsdale College in 2001. He received his Ph.D. in economics at George Mason University in 2005 under the direction of Peter Boettke. In 2003-2004, he was a Visiting Fellow in Political Economy and Government at Harvard University. In 2005, he was the F.A. Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics.[15]

Leeson proposed marriage to his now-wife, Ania, in the preface of his book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.[16] Ania also appears as one of the characters in his book WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird.[17] Leeson has a tattoo of a supply and demand curve on his right biceps[18] and is an avid cigar smoker.[19][20][21] He illustrated his book WTF?![20]


Economics of piracy[edit]

Leeson's Invisible Hook argues that Caribbean pirates developed an early form of constitutional democracy and engaged in behaviors such as flying the Jolly Roger because doing so maximized their profit.[22]

In the wake of the Maersk Alabama hijacking, his work on piracy drew substantial media attention.[23][24][25][26] In an article published by National Public Radio, he said that "early 18th century pirates, men like Blackbeard, "Black Bart" Roberts, and "Calico" Jack Rackam, were not only thieves. They were also early experimenters with some of the modern world's most cherished values, such as liberty, democracy, and equality."[27]

Although Leeson is careful to note that he does not praise the criminal actions of pirates, he argues that their self-organization is a useful illustration of how even criminal conduct is based on rational self-interest. In an interview published by The New York Times, Leeson summarized his thesis:

The idea of the invisible hook is that pirates, though they're criminals, are still driven by their self-interest. So they were driven to build systems of government and social structures that allowed them to better pursue their criminal ends.... The reason that the criminality is driving these structures is because they can't rely on the state to provide those structures for them. So pirates, more than anyone else, needed to figure out some system of law and order to make it possible for them to remain together long enough to be successful at stealing.[26]

Economics of bizarre rituals and superstitions[edit]

Leeson's book WTF?! argues that practices which seem senseless, such as trial by ordeal, trial by combat, and oracular divination, are in fact clever solutions devised by people to overcome social problems.[28] A recurrent theme in his work is that "people—all of them, regardless of time or place, religion or culture, wealth, poverty, or anything else—are rational."[29] Similarly, he maintains that all institutions, including those "that seem obviously inefficient—and, indeed, sometimes downright absurd—are in fact, on closer inspection, efficient and not so absurd after all."[30]

Economics of anarchy[edit]

Leeson has written extensively on the economics of anarchy and has suggested that "self-governance works better than you think."[31] Avinash Dixit described Leeson's book Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think as "an eye-opener," and Robert Ellickson described it as "masterly."[32] According to Leeson:

[T]he case for anarchy derives its strength from empirical evidence, not theory.... Despite... significant arenas of anarchy we do not observe perpetual world war in the absence of global government, shriveling international commerce in the absence of supranational commercial law, or even deteriorating standards of living in Somalia. On the contrary, peace overwhelmingly prevails between the world's countries, international trade is flourishing, and Somali development has improved under statelessness.[31]

The Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders, which is administered by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, awarded Leeson its Hayek Prize in 2006, noting of his scholarship that:

Leeson has concentrated on the study of the problem of order where no formal law exists, showing how in such diverse situations as trade among strangers, banditry in colonial West Central Africa and modern Somalia, and life in pirate societies over the ages often informal rules emerge that allow order to be preserved without heavy-handed government control.[33]


Leeson stated in a column regarding Ronald Reagan and foreign policy, "Reagan’s foreign policy was predicated on the use of military intervention to achieve the political and economic outcomes his administration was after in foreign countries. I am advocating precisely the opposite—that no such intervention would be desirable."[34]


  • WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1503600911
  • The Economic Role of the State. (ed. with P. Boettke). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015.
  • Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1107025806
  • The Secrets of Pirate Management. Princeton: Princeton Shorts, 2012. ISBN 9781400843169
  • The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-13747-6
  • Media, Institutional Change, and Economic Development. (with C. Coyne). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2009.
  • The Legacy of Ludwig von Mises: Theory and History. (ed. with P. Boettke). 2 vols. Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84064-402-9


  1. ^ "Peter T. Leeson." George Mason University Department of Economics
  2. ^ Wyne, Ali. "Empirics and Psychology: Eight of the World's Top Young Economists Discuss Where Their Field is Going." Big Think. July 25, 2012. [1]
  3. ^ "Economist Rankings."
  4. ^ Department of Economics, George Mason University. "Peter Leeson Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts."[2]
  5. ^ Jones, Ashby. "On the Cauldron System of Justice: Who Needs a Courtroom, Anyway?" Wall Street Journal. February 1, 2010. [3]
  6. ^ Rothman, Lily. "Game of Thrones and the Case for Trial by Combat." Time. March 12, 2014. [4]
  7. ^ Worstall, Tim. "Wifeselling: Is Selling Your Wife Slavery?" Forbes. June 21, 2011. [5]
  8. ^ Levitt, Steven. "The Economics of Gypsies." July 27, 2010. [6]
  9. ^ Richmond, Ben. "There's a Rational Explanation for Human Sacrifice." Motherboard/VICE. January 31, 2014. [7]
  10. ^ Surowiecki, James. "The Pirate's Code" New Yorker. July 9, 2007
  11. ^ Cowen, Tyler. April 30, 2017
  12. ^ Stanford University Press
  13. ^ Levitt, Steven. "Freakonomics Meets Pirates of the Caribbean." December 29, 2009. [8]
  14. ^ a b LaFaive, Michael. "Peter the Great." Mackinac Center for Public Policy. October 10, 2005. [9]
  15. ^ Leeson, Peter. Curriculum vitae.
  16. ^ Pellien, Jessica. "Peter Leeson Proposes an Economic Love Story." Princeton University Press. March 30, 2009. [10] For further information, see this interview.
  17. ^ Leeson, Peter T. WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird Stanford University Press. 2017. p. 11.
  18. ^ Crain, Caleb. "Bootylicious: What do the Pirates of Yore Tell us About Their Modern Counterparts." The New Yorker. September 7, 2009. [11]
  19. ^ Braun, Bob. "Pirates Provide Opportunity for Quirky Study of Economics." The Star-Ledger June 29, 2009. [12]
  20. ^ a b Leeson, Peter T. WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird Stanford University Press. 2017. p. 191
  21. ^ Leeson, Peter T. "An Austrian Approach to Law and Economics, with Special Reference to Superstition." Review of Austrian Economics 25(3): 185-198. [13]
  22. ^ Shermer, Michael. "Pirate Economics? Captain Hook Meets Adam Smith." Scientific American October 1, 2009.
  23. ^ Trumbull, Mark and Mark Sappenfield. "Captain freed from pirates in daring rescue." Christian Science Monitor. April 12, 2009.
  24. ^ Abraham, Marc. "How pirates of old really did the business." The Guardian. April 6, 2009.
  25. ^ Caldwell, Christopher. "No honour among pirates." Financial Times. April 24, 2009.
  26. ^ a b Hagen, Ryan. "Pirate Economics 101: A Q&A With Invisible Hook Author Peter Leeson." Freakonomics Blog. New York Times. April 20, 2009. [14]
  27. ^ Leeson, Peter. "In Defense of Pirates (The Old Time Ones)." National Public Radio. April 10, 2009. [15]
  28. ^ Leeson, Peter T. WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird Stanford University Press. 2017.
  29. ^ Leeson, Peter T. WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird Stanford University Press. 2017. p. XII
  30. ^ Leeson, Peter T. "Why did Pirates Choose Democracy? And Some Thoughts on the Efficient Institutions View." April 20, 2013. [16]
  31. ^ a b Leeson, Peter. "Anarchy Unbound; Or, Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think." Cato Unbound. Cato Institute. August 6, 2007. [17]
  32. ^ Cambridge University Press
  33. ^ Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders. Atlas Economic Research Foundation. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-07-09. Retrieved 2009-07-05. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link) CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  34. ^ "Clarifying Matters". Cato Unbound. August 20, 2007. Retrieved August 2, 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

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