Rum, Sodomy and the Nash

by Henry on May 10, 2005

Stephen Bainbridge ruminates on Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels and the reasons for the success of the British Navy in its wars against Napoleonic France and the US. He gives a brief discussion of a paper by Douglas W. Allen, which analyzes the institutions of the British Navy as a solution to a set of principal-agent problems. Now, the paper is interesting, but it seems to me to be flawed, in a manner that’s unfortunately rather typical of many economists who analyze social institutions. Allen treats the rules of the Navy as an efficient solution to a set of monitoring problems, where the British state wanted to make sure that its captains, officers and seamen fought well on its behalf. In other words, he’s making a functionalist argument.

Now the functionalist part of the story is an important one; the British Navy clearly existed for a reason. But if the Aubrey-Maturin novels provide any sort of an accurate picture of the institutions of the British Navy, there’s strong countervailing evidence to suggest that many of the institutions of the Navy were less intended to maximize the overall efficiency of the Navy as a fighting machine, than to provide powerful actors in the Navy with the opportunities for individual gain. Viz., the institutionalized prerogatives of pursers to engage in certain forms of peculation. The right of admirals to a third-share of any prize money won by captains under their command. The need to pay sweeteners to those in charge of the docks to provide timely repairs. The arbitrary system of promotion, which depended at least as much (and probably rather more) on patronage and political connections as on merit. Not to mention Aubrey’s (and Hornblower’s) continual source of complaint – the miserable official allotment of gunpowder, which meant that captains had to lay in their own supplies to have any chance of fighting successfully at sea. Now I imagine that one could construct “just-so” stories which explained why most (or all) of these institutionalized features of Navy life contributed to the overall goal of maximizing the Navy’s efficiency as a fighting machine. But they would be just-so stories – not especially convincing on their merits. To the extent that O’Brian is right (and he clearly did a hell of a lot of research), the institutions of the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars weren’t even a second-best solution. They were an ungainly compromise between a wide variety of different actors, each of whom had a strong streak of self-interest, and the ability and desire to bargain in order to achieve that interest, whatever this meant for the British Navy as a fighting force.

Update: title changed following comment from Kieran

{ 32 comments }

1

Kieran Healy 05.10.05 at 10:48 am

I think this post should have been titled “Rum, Sodomy and the Nash.”

2

yoyo 05.10.05 at 11:00 am

good post, good album

3

David 05.10.05 at 11:01 am

One of the points of NAM Rodger’s _Safeguard of the Seas_ is that the Royal Navy was (at least during the Elizabethan period) much more of a public/private partnership than historians have tended to think. Elizabeth harnessed the energy of the strong English piratical tradition by giving captains and admirals the chance to indulge in private peculation/speculation/raiding, whatever the diplomatic consequences were for England. The result was often foreign difficulties for the British, but it also allowed the crown to have a expert Navy at a much lesser cost than otherwise might have been the case.

4

P ONeill 05.10.05 at 11:17 am

Somewhat bizarrely, Persuasion is also informative about the institutions of the Navy, at least in providing the broader social setting. For one thing, the Navy’s incentive system was clearly much sharper than that provided by the traditional narrow upward path through the landed aristocracy. For the small middle class, there was a now an alternative to the professions — making a ton of money on the high seas and outflanking the Sir Walters of the world when back on dry land. So these individual-based incentives that Henry describes were extremely powerful precisely because of the lack of such incentives elsewhere in society.

5

Henry 05.10.05 at 11:31 am

Kieran – seconded! God, that’s a great title for a post. Why didn’t I think of it? Yoyo – the ref. is less to the Pogues than to the original? source of the quote – Winston Churchill’s comment on naval traditions.

6

Jim 05.10.05 at 12:13 pm

I thought the original saying was Rum, buggery and the lash.

The other typical falw of this type of analysis is that it seems ot assume a blank social and political slate that would allow for perfectly formed solutions and instantaneous and undistorted implementation.

Watch the current drama going on within DOD for how these structural changes really happen. The structures and policies arise out of existing parts and in existing circumstances. The catfight over the the Crusader howitzer is just one example. The next big agony will be the new goal of getting all majors to have at least one strategically important foreign language. The real issue in any of these changes will not be wat is theoretically optimal, but what is feasible.

7

Ralph Hitchens 05.10.05 at 12:16 pm

The Allen paper cited by you & Bainbridge contains many errors (remarkable, given that he cites N.A.M. Rodger as one of his reviewers) but the thesis is well-argued. What’s missing from the article is nailed pretty well by Rodger in his latest book, The Command of the Seas (the successor volume to Safeguard of the Seas) — the slowly-growing recognition among Britain’s naval elite (up to and including some Royals, like Charles II and his brother James) that the basis for promotion needed to be broadened, with strong allowance made for professional competence in addition to birth and social status. Being a successful naval officer in the age of sail required hands-on skills and knowledge that had no counterpart in land warfare. The Royal Navy of that period was indeed a unique institution, for which there is no better introduction than the Aubrey-Maturin series of novels.

8

slolernr 05.10.05 at 12:19 pm

Patrick O’Brien (not a typo, I mean the one at LSE) thinks the institutions of the Royal Navy constituted Britain’s version of a developmentalist (mercantilist) state, and would I believe argue that the alleged motive of efficiency is misguided on the historical merits. The principal actor is the Crown in Parliament, which had to reckon with the existing power structure in the aristocracy…. rather more at your argument, Henry, than at Bainbridge / Allen.

9

Douglas W. Allen 05.10.05 at 12:45 pm

A graduate student tipped me off to this discussion, and I must say I’m greatly flattered my work is not
lost and forgotten. I’ve never posted to a blog before, and I’m afraid I don’t have the time to play on here some more, but I would like to make a few comments.

As and aside, I’ve noticed O’Brian fans (I’m one) tend to have a hard time accepting my paper. I’ve wondered about this, and I think it is because his emphasis is ultimately on character and not institutions. This dispite his detail on institutions. Contrast this with Forester (for example in his non-fiction work “Age of Fighting Sail”) who I think has a much keener instinct for the constraints the Navy placed on officers.

But that’s another debate. The initial post asserts my paper is “flawed” because it is a “just -so” story. I wonder if this person actually read my paper. True enough, my theory explains the observations I’m interested in, but the paper goes beyond this and TESTS the hypotheis. I not only explain why the rules were just so, I use this to explain the relative success of the British, the absence of these rules among the privateers, and most importantly, why promotion in the navy didn’t use the purchase system used in the Army. This last point is quite a puzzle given that the payment structure was fundamentally the same. Finally, my theory is able to explain the fall of the institutional rules in the 19th century. For those interested, I contrast the Army, Navy, Treasury, and Court rules over this period in another paper coming out in JITE. I also have a paper on the British Army purchase system in Journal of Legal Studies, 1998.

One of the posts states my paper contains many errors. If others find these, I’d love to know what they are. Although I must say, I find this another trait of O’Brian fans … the use of hyperbole… yet another debate.

Thanks again for discussing my paper. I feel honored!

da

10

Mrs Tilton 05.10.05 at 1:08 pm

As Henry is talking about the Navy and several have mentioned N.A.M. Rodger, I would mention Rodger’s The Wooden World as a good introduction of how the Navy worked, and why (granted, a generation or two before Jack Aubrey’s time). A wealth of knowledge lightly worn, and very palatably conveyed.

11

Anthony 05.10.05 at 1:43 pm

As David in #3 commented, the assumption that the only aim of the Royal Navy was efficiency in fighting at sea is likely incorrect. The Army famously sold commissions, not because it produced better officers or let to a more effective army, but because it put the one institution capable of easily overturning the existing order in the hands of the people who benefitted most from the existing order. Without knowing enough English social history, I can’t venture a good guess as to the other motivations, though the ideas of dealing with the existing aristocratic power structure and of building a Navy on the cheap ventured above sound reasonable.

12

yabonn 05.10.05 at 2:33 pm

Going meta… ok, going off topic.

Does anyone remembers that woody allen movie where people talk about an author, woody disagrees, gets annoyed and finally proves his case by pulling the author out of the setting?

Well, it’s not the same but close enough after all for that “aren’t those internets exceptionaly cool and all” feeling.

13

Henry 05.10.05 at 2:38 pm

Hi Douglas

The post actually doesn’t accuse you of telling “just so stories” – the latter are mentioned in a general sense rather than in specific reference to your article (one _could_ construct just-so stories about a variety of features of the Navy that seem better explained from the basis of a bargaining perspective). Where we do disagree is with regard to our fundamental starting points for constructing theories. You start (or am I wrong?) from an analysis of the Navy’s institutions as a more-or-less efficient solution to a variety of principal-agent problems. This is a functionalist claim. As I say in the post, functionalism does help to explain what is going on – but there are many very important features of Navy institutions which I contend are better explained from a bargaining perspective; a mixed motive coordination game rather than a pure one. If you want to see where this general argument comes from, read Jack Knight’s _Institutions and Social Conflict_ (Cambridge 1992). For example, I suspect that you’re on rather treacherous ground when you argue that the system of promotion and patronage were effectively efficiency promoting, through allowing better supervision and disciplining powers. There’s a strong counter-argument that these weren’t efficiency enhancing, but instead the result of bargaining interactions in which politically powerful actors were able to get their way in decisions to promote or otherwise, regardless of the consequences for the Navy as a whole.

14

ogmb 05.10.05 at 2:40 pm

the institutions of the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars weren’t even a second-best solution.

Isn’t the blatantly obvious answer to this that second-best solutions, while not exactly first-best, are usually perfectly fine when employed against third-best solutions?

15

David 05.10.05 at 3:07 pm

_ The Army famously sold commissions, not because it produced better officers or let to a more effective army, but because it put the one institution capable of easily overturning the existing order in the hands of the people who benefitted most from the existing order._

And, of course, it was possible to move away from the purchase system in the Navy (or any other form of limiting officerships to the aristocracy) because the Navy _didn’t_ pose the same kind of internal threat.

16

Fred Smoler 05.10.05 at 3:14 pm

One should not assume that the RN lacked significant advantages other than the incentive of prize money and the contraint of the monitoring system. For example, tactics other than those derived from the Fighting Instructions: the RN tended to fire into hulls, the French navy into rigging. Firing into hulls produced the disproportionate casualties (firing into rigging maintained one’s ability to flee the action). And better tactics are not always swiftly emulated: sometimes people cling to worse tactics for a very long time. Another factor: the RN, being much larger, could attempt close blockade, and was much more frequently at sea, which almost certainly meant superior seamanship through superior experience. Another factor: the Navy was in part an honor culture, and a very powerful one; the risk of incurring dishonor almost certainly constrained some of the perverse effects of prize money (I seem to remember that O’Brian is instructive about this). If you read through courts martial transcripts, you see just how powerful the honor culture’s pressure could be. In re the sale of Army but not Naval commissions: while it is true that the Army could in theory overthrow the regime, the Navy could (through incompetence) expose the Kingdom to foreign conquest. If we are speculating in the absence of good evidence, why not assume that the Navy foreswore an irrational system because the stakes were so high? As for allowing aristocratic connections to secure commands, the RN seems to have done more of this after 1815 than before.

17

Doug Sundseth 05.10.05 at 4:10 pm

“The Army famously sold commissions, not because it produced better officers or let to a more effective army, but because it put the one institution capable of easily overturning the existing order in the hands of the people who benefitted most from the existing order.”

While this may have been a reason for the slow death of commission sales, it was not the primary reason, nor was it the reason for the start of the practice. To understand the practice, you need to understand that the regiments of the Napoleonic period arose from privately owned (sort of) military units raised by wealthy nobles. The owners of the units then sold inferior command positions to other, less wealthy persons to defray the cost of the unit, and made an income from the crown. The result was similar in many ways to a corporation.

Having purchased a commission, an officer had ownership of an economically valuable asset, which he could then sell on to recoup his investment. This investment formed something of a retirement fund for an officer who managed to survive to retire.

To end the practice, the crown was required to buy out the stake of each officer who had a purchased commission. For the parsimonious British Empire, this was difficult to justify, and thus the practice didn’t end until sometime in Victoria’s reign.

18

David 05.10.05 at 4:17 pm

_ In re the sale of Army but not Naval commissions: while it is true that the Army could in theory overthrow the regime, the Navy could (through incompetence) expose the Kingdom to foreign conquest. If we are speculating in the absence of good evidence, why not assume that the Navy foreswore an irrational system because the stakes were so high? As for allowing aristocratic connections to secure commands, the RN seems to have done more of this after 1815 than before_

I’m not sure labelling things as ‘irrational’ or ‘incompetent’ is the best way to analyze them. There’s an assumption in that that the primary goal for a military service should be excellence in fighting. But if the British were more concerned with the possibility of an Army coup (which they might well be, given the 17th century), then fighting effectiveness could come second to ensuring control of the Army by giving it an aristocratic officer corps.

Conversely, with the Navy, if the main threat is that of foreign invasion, then fighting effectiveness _would_ become the primary goal, and an exclusionary officer corps not useful. The point about the RN doing it more after 1815 rather than before simply echoes that. Without the mortal threat that was Bonaparte, the British could afford to reduce the effectiveness of the Navy in service of elite domination of the officer corps.

19

rea 05.10.05 at 5:14 pm

It would be a mistake to assume that the Britsh navy of that period was the product of intelligent design–it evolved.

20

Fred Smoler 05.10.05 at 5:37 pm

In re post-1815 increases in the value of aristocratic connections for securing a command, my strong sense is that they mattered more because there were so few commands to be had. The Navy shrank from almost 120,000 in 1813 to something under 20,000 in 1817 or thereabouts, while the number of Post Captains did not shrink at all, other than through natural mortality. I do not think they ceased to fear France (or Russia): there were repeated naval scares.

In re irrationality and incompetence, they admittedly have defects as explanatory devices, not least because incompetence is not always clear, and I regret having deployed them so carelessly. For one thing, I am not sure that 18th Brit Army officers were incompetent at war-fighting, and there is obvious evidence that they were as good as or better than the competition (Britain lost relatively few land battles in the 18th C.) Stable, property-owning gents made pretty good field officers in many pre-Napoleonic 18th C. armies; it was industrial war and, above all, maneuver warfare and combined arms operations, which made the Brit gentleman officer look somewhat inept–and even them, very ept indeed at securing unit cohesion, morale, discipline, etc. If memories of the 17th C. remain disturbing, you do not necessarily need to secure aristocratic control, since the perceived threat is neither Jacobin nor Bolshevik, it is at least as likely Catholic or Dissenting or Jacobite: you may simply want Whiggish Anglicans, it depends on how the people who allowed purchase interpreted the New Model Army and the Civil War. There were religious qualifications, and permissable exceptions, I do not remember quite how they worked. But does purchase necessarily let you keep out Jacobites? I agree that fear of the Executive was certainly a serious motive for maintaining Parilamentary controls on the army, it is just that I am not sure that purchase does this too plausibly.

21

agm 05.10.05 at 6:42 pm

The arbitrary system of promotion, which depended at least as much (and probably rather more) on patronage and political connections as on merit.
And where might academics have first hand experience in how such a system works? =)

Seriously, so Napoleonic era armies were composed of and/or augmented by mercenary units raised by the nobility? You learn something new every day…

22

Doug Sundseth 05.10.05 at 7:05 pm

“Seriously, so Napoleonic era armies were composed of and/or augmented by mercenary units raised by the nobility? You learn something new every day.”

I’d say rather that the units of the Napoleonic era* arose from earlier units that had elements of both the mercenary and the feudal. The practice of purchasing promotions arose during that earlier period and continued for a variety of reasons during the Napoleonic Wars.

* This is more true in some armies than others. The explicitly anti-aristocratic French army of the Republican period broke many of the links between the earlier and later practices in a way that the Austrian, Russian, and British armies, in particular did not. The Prussian army was a bit of an outlier, in that it was more directly supported and controlled by the Prussian government than were the others mentioned. The Prussian army was also created out of whole cloth in a way very different from the more organic way that the other major European armies arose.

23

Doug Sundseth 05.10.05 at 7:06 pm

Sorry, an asterisked note turned into a bulleted paragraph upon posting. Please take that into account in my immediately preceding message.

24

David 05.10.05 at 7:15 pm

_I agree that fear of the Executive was certainly a serious motive for maintaining Parilamentary controls on the army, it is just that I am not sure that purchase does this too plausibly._

Sure. I suspect that purchase was a blunt instrument, but purchase and patronage combined strikes me as a pretty solid way of keeping things in the hands of acceptable folks.

(Of course, that ignores the lessons of the 14th and 15th centuries, which is that “acceptable” people tend to be the ones to put the knife in. cf. War of the Roses, and so on).

25

adrian 05.11.05 at 3:34 am

comment 12 yabonn

“Annie Hall”: Marshall MacLuhan

26

Bernard Guerrero 05.11.05 at 6:21 am

Gentlemen, ladies, why force this into an either/or situation? While the British Navy and its internal institutions may have been a “second best” solution (or worse), balancing a number of private interests rather than aiming at a perfect fighting institution, this is all besides the point.

As the old joke goes, “I don’t have to outrun the _bear_.” Neither did the British Navy have to operate optimally. It simply needed to be incentivized in such a way as to operate more efficiently than the French Navy when they clashed.

27

Barry 05.11.05 at 9:01 am

And not even that – it merely had to defeat the French Navy to the extent required, at a cost bearable to the people making and enforcing the decisions. For example, impressment of sailors was a severe cost to the impressee’s, but tolerable to those ordering it and carrying it out.

28

j mct 05.11.05 at 9:41 am

One must also remember that the Royal Navy was originally staffed by pirates, errr, privateers. The old ‘customs’ were the old customs because Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh and the rest were not cultured courtiers or technocrats but mostly West Country (Devonshire and Cornwall) toughs who financed their own ships and voyages to go out and savage the Spanish main and sometimes do a little slave trading. This also kept the Crown’s expenses down, which was very important since the English monarch was relatively poor vis a vis other monarchs when the RN was getting started. That a large part of the allure of being a sea captain was plunder, err, prize money, was traditional and as the institution changed it didn’t change all at once, like all institutions it only changed as much as it absolutely had to, hence the old vestiges of the earlier freebooters that made up the RN.

The RN was very meritocratic for its day, it was one of the places in British society a relatively lower class sort could do well, even if he had a disadvantage. The two European military institutions generally lauded for their administrative excellence are the Prussian/German General staff and the British Admiralty.

29

David 05.11.05 at 5:00 pm

_ toughs who financed their own ships and voyages to go out and savage the Spanish main and sometimes do a little slave trading. This also kept the Crown’s expenses down, which was very important since the English monarch was relatively poor vis a vis other monarchs when the RN was getting started._

Er, yes. I sort of mentioned that in note 2, above.

30

Darren 05.13.05 at 5:39 am

Is anyone doing any work on correlating technology (or the lack of it) to the existence or prevalence of the institution of slavery?

Isn’t a big reason for the demise of slavery the increase of technology which is illustrated in the technology of transport on the high seas? That is, galley slaves were economically viable before sail technology improved such that it wasn’t possible to sail a ship by nailing/tying someone to a sheet, stay or painter? As soon as it became cheaper to sail rather than to row and since the mobility of sail operators (sailors) was necessary to sail; slavery – in the form of galley slaves – disappeared.

I’d be interested to read if anyone (preferrably an economic historian) has done any work in this area or similar – such as the change from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. Or perhaps the increase of agricultural yields with the use of fertilisers (guano rather than ammonium nitrate).

31

David Salmanson 05.13.05 at 2:45 pm

Darren,
This was thought to be true in the US case but several books on industrialization in the South showed that technological improvement and slavery were compatible. One need only think of how the technological improvement of the cotton gin spurred rather than lessened slavery’s growth. The recent upsurge in forced labor around the world is surely as much a function of technology as it is despite technology.

32

Bernard Guerrero 05.14.05 at 8:36 am

David, that’s rather vague. You’re correct as to a _specific_ technology (e.g. the gin) encouraging slavery. But the mechanism is key. Both cotton picking and processing were massively labor intensive. The gin made the processing a great deal cheaper/more productive while doing nothing to make the actual growing/picking process less labor intensive, which resulted in a rapidly growing demand for field labor. To make the claim you are making, I think you’d need to show a similar perverse mechanism. I don’t see it.

Comments on this entry are closed.