Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America
© 2014 Peter Andreas
“What can a Governor do, without the assistance of the Governed? What can the Magistrates do, unless they are supported by their fellow Citizens? What can the King’s officers do, if they make themselves obnoxious to the people amongst whom they reside?” – frustrated colonial customs officer
As a libertarian with bootlegging forbears, I reflexively hold smugglers in high esteem, and was eager to read about the proud history of subversive commerce in the United States, even if the author’s intention wasn’t to celebrate them. Smuggler Nation is a comprehensive history of not only how people thumbed their noses at a state that presumed to tell them what they could and could not buy, or imposed punishing tribute on what they purchased from afar, but an illustrative account of how the United States government was formed and strengthened by smuggling — either by gaining powers to fight it, or by gaining resources through it. If war is the health of the state, so too is prohibition.
The story begins in the colonial past, when British subjects in North America were officially expected to conform to mercantilist policies — where goods were bought from, or via, England. I say officially because customs officials were so cheerfully corrupt that little effort was made to enforce these policies until after the Seven Years War, at which point Britain so alienated its subjects that they bid for independence. Smuggling supplied the rebels with arms and resources, allowing the rebellion to persist for so long that Parliament gave up. The fledgling American republic would impose its own customs laws — its only resource of revenue back in those halcyon days — but find them thwarted. Smuggling meant both evading the tribute demanded of imports, and the selling of proscribed goods — though throughout the book it’s also used to characterize the slave trade, illegal immigration, and wartime blockades. Customs enforcement would grow with the state, decade by decade, but smuggling flourished and continued to create the nation in its image — helping open the west and establishing the industrial revolution, for instance. The Civil War was prolonged, in Andreas’ estimation, by smuggling — for it allowed a nation with virtually no industrial resources to sustain several armies for four years. As the United States drifted further from its original vision, increasingly more things became verboten and the powers of the state to police people’s everyday lives grew to extreme proportions that now one in every hundred Americans is in jail, over half of whom are there thanks to the drug war.
Smuggler Nation is a lot of fun, what with its legions of colorful characters — rebel planters, pirates, rogue inventors. There are fascinating side stories, too, like the heavy role Mexico played in facilitating early Chinese immigration into the United States. But there are important lessons here, too. Despite the growing march of the state in the background, I was frequently amused and astonished by the means people found to import items on the sly. Reading this reinforced an observation from Narconomics: prohibition doesn’t squelch demand, it merely redirects it. When the United States stamped down hard on cocaine and marijuana imports via the Carribean, it merely redirected the traffic via Mexico — destabilizing it further and establishing powerful gangs on the southwest’s doorstep. Prohibition led to the revival of hard liquors like whisky over beer, and suppression of drugs like MDMA have led to far more dangerous synthetic substitutes. If a substance truly is noxious, cultural pressure is more effective at minimizing it — as has been done with tobacco. I daresay as the state’s powers continue to swell, more things will become forbidden. Smuggling in the United States has had a colorful past…and presumably a long future.