NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Enlist Privateers in the War on Terrorism

October 9, 2001

America's experience with "privateers" -- private ships licensed by the government to seek justice on the high seas -- shows that private entrepreneurs often outperform government agencies even during wartime says economist Larry Sechrest of the Independent Institute.

  • Eight hundred privateers aided the colonists' cause in the American Revolution, while the British employed 700, despite having a huge government navy.
  • Between 1793 and 1797, the British lost 2,266 vessels, the majority taken by French privateers.
  • In the War of 1812, 526 American ships commissioned as privateers captured an estimated 1,750 British ships.

This was not piracy, because the privateers were licensed by their own governments and the ships were bonded to ensure their captains followed the accepted laws of the sea, including the humane treatment of prisoners.

Thomas Jefferson said, "Every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war." Congress granted privateers "letters of marque and reprisal," under the authority of Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

Privateering fell out of favor in the late 1800s because government naval officers resented the competitive power that privateers possessed, but the war on terrorism may revive it.

Source: Larry J. Sechrest, "Let Privateers Troll for bin Laden," September 30, 2001, and Larry J. Sechrest, "Privateering and National Defense: Naval Warfare for Private Profit," Working Paper No. 41, September 2001, Independent Institute, 100 Swan Way, Oakland, Calif. 94621,(510)632-1366.


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