The Return of Privateering?

TexasSignal: Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican who represents Texas’ 5th District, has introduced legislation that would allow U.S. citizens to seize the yachts, jets, and other property belonging to Russian oligarchs who have been sanctioned in response to the invasion of Ukraine. In other words, privateering.

…In the age of sail, it was common for nations to issue letters of marque licensing private citizens to raid the shipping of enemy nations. The practice died down in the 19th Century with the Paris Declaration of 1856 outlawing privateers. However, the United States never signed the Paris Declaration, and Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to issue letters of marque.

Gooden’s bill would require President Biden to issue letters of marque to seize yachts and other assets belonging to sanctioned Russian citizens. Gooden’s office even says that letters of marque could be issued to hackers to go after Russia in cyberspace.

There are three questions. First, should some Russian citizens be sanctioned? Second, should assets belonging to sanctioned Russian citizens be seized? Third, should privateers be able to do the seizing under a legal regime? There is a lot of room for debate on the first two questions but oddly these questions aren’t debated. Sanctions of this kind are common and broadly regarded as legitimate although likely overused in my view. The latter question arouses the most debate but is to me the easiest to answer. Sure, why not? Privateering worked well in the wars of the 19th century and we could likely have saved trillions by using bounties in the war in Afghanistan.

Here’s my paper on privateering and my story about the time I went bounty hunting in Baltimore.



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