Most of the “birthday appreciations” I’ve written have been for scholars who have been around a lot longer than I have. This is the first one I’ll write about someone who is actually younger than I am (by four months and ten days) and who I’ve long considered to be the best economist of my generation: Peter T. Leeson of George Mason University.
Leeson discovered economics and decided he wanted to be an economist at a very young age (14, I believe). He studied economics at Hillsdale College (undergraduate) and George Mason (PhD) before joining the faculty at West Virginia University for a short stint. He left a big impression in a short time; one of his students, Claudia Williamson, has gone on to a successful career at Mississippi State University and ascended to the editorship of the Journal of Institutional Economics. Leeson didn’t stay at West Virginia for very long before heading back to George Mason, where he serves as the Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law and as the North American Editor of Public Choice. He is well-traveled and widely published: Leeson has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard, the Max Planck Institute, and the University of Chicago, and he has also been the Hayek Fellow at the London School of Economics. His almost-unbelievable torrent of intellectual output has found homes in journals like the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Law and Economics, the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization, the American Journal of Political Science, the Economic Journal, Public Choice, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and a host of other journals.
If I may be so bold, to the extent that the economics profession has an heir to Gary Becker in the sense of pushing economic analysis as far as we think it will go and then discovering it will go a little farther, it’s Leeson. He also embodies George Stigler’s (incendiary, I’ll admit) claim that “there is one social science, and we [economists] are its practitioners.” An incredible amount of Leeson’s mind-bogglingly prolific output applies the simple insights of economics–scarcity, rational choice, people respond to incentives–to off-the-wall things like witch trials, ordeals, and other seemingly bizarre practices that, as he shows, actually solve important and perhaps otherwise intractable problems. It may not always look like economics, but it’s careful economic analysis informed by a lot of different intellectual traditions. He summarized a lot of his strangest work in his appropriately titled 2017 book from Stanford University Press WTF? An Economic Tour of the Weird.
Some of his most notable work looks at the economic organization of pirate communities. It culminated in his 2009 book from Princeton University Press, The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. In it, he combined his childhood fascination with pirates with his training as an economist to show that there actually is honor among thieves–or at least practices sufficient to make voluntary, relatively large-scale cooperation work even among some of the worst wretches on the high seas. I’d like to think the people who made the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are drawing from Leeson in their veneration of the Pirate Code–but the first three movies in the series came out before The Invisible Hook.
All the fun masks a very, very serious underlying theme. Leeson is a leader among an emerging coterie of scholars who take self-governance very seriously. They blend a mix of approaches, ideas, and methods–traditional Austrian economics in the tradition of Mises and Hayek, Chicago price theory in the tradition of Gary Becker, Bloomington school institutional analysis in the tradition of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, Chicago-style law and economics in the tradition of Ronald Coase and Richard Posner, and public choice theory in the tradition of James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock to produce a robust comparative-institutional framework.
Libertarians like us are sometimes exhorted to move to Somalia if we don’t like our governments. While a lot of us might agree that American or European-quality state capacity and governance might be the best of all imaginable governance structures, it’s not clear that American or European-style governance is an option everywhere. Leeson studied this explicitly in his 2007 paper Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse, which appeared in the Journal of Comparative Economics. He reported evidence that the collapse of Somalia’s government actually made things better for Somalis. They got a lot of private predation in their stateless society, but it appears to have been less costly than state predation.
That paper and a handful of others raised a fundamental question: do we need states in order to have governance? At first glance, it might seem like an organization with a comparative advantage in violence–to use Douglass C. North’s definition–is the only or best way to solve collective action problems. Leeson disagrees. Consider the subtitle of his 2014 book Anarchy Unbound: Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think. Drawing on his wide array of theoretical and empirical work, he explains how societies and organizations come to govern themselves without states. His work suggests that the new fetish for “state capacity’ as the magic bullet that will lead to prosperity and equality is a serious mistake. While it’s likely that American or Scandinavian governance might be preferable to anarchy in Somalia or a lot of other places, these might not be feasible options. The quasi-colonial project of “state-building” in poor countries that ignores indigenous institutions and practices and instead seeks to implement “best practices” dreamed up in a seminar room at the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund risks developing into The Tyranny of Experts, to borrow the title of William Easterly’s 2014 book.
On his 41st birthday, Peter T. Leeson is well-positioned to continue making important and creative contributions to our beloved dismal science. He continues to pursue a research agenda that advances our understanding of history, politics, and humanity in addition to economics more specifically. His message–that free and creative people have a good track record of solving problems without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything–is as timely now as it was when he was just getting started–but I can’t really imagine a time when it won’t be.
Jacob Carden assisted with this article.