Sunday, December 15, 2013

Spew Book of the Year: Smuggler Nation

I have been meaning to post about a fun book for much of the year, but I procrastinated.  So, I can use the premise of this being the book of the year to finally blog about Peter Andreas's Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America.  The book really opened my eyes and changed my perspective on American history.  Andreas cites Tilly early as he asserts that smuggling made the nation and the nation made smuggling.  And then he is off to the races to show how the efforts to smuggle and the fights to stop smuggling interacted in ways that shaped US history and institutions.

The first insight that blew my mind was that the American Revolution was not so much about new legislation from London but a new effort to enforce old laws.  Americans had gotten rich* by violating various prohibitions, and then only sought to revolt from Britain when the British started to take such violations seriously.  That many of the folks who got rich off of smuggling ended up in positions of power reminds me of Andrea's earlier book, Blue Helmets, Black Markets, which focused on the impact of civil war and crime on Bosnia and its power structures.
*It was fun to see Providence and Brown University play such key roles in the old smuggling history as that is where Andreas works (and where some of my family resides). 

British mercantilism, like most restraints on trade, just provided folks with huge incentives to dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge the laws.  And creativity seems to increase with incentives.  Ye olde smugglers were pretty smart folks.  Of course, once the Revolution happened and a new government was founded, it had to try to restrict some of the trade as well, and found itself fighting the folks who funded some of the rebellion.  Good times.

The tale of American industrialization also changes quite significantly, as today's concerns about other folks ripping off American intellectual property can now be seen as chock full of irony, given how American entrepreneurs ripped off British technologies left and right.  This helps to underline a key theme in the book--the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The smuggling of smut in mid 1800s, with the boom in publishing, seems pretty familiar, with the internet having a similar impact.  This chapter was particularly fun to read, as the American fight against vice just seems even more ridiculous than the efforts to fight other smuggled goods.  Plus the image of Andreas studying old porn is just, well, amusing.

Andreas moves on to discuss people smuggling--Chinese--that again has parallels today.  Then booze with prohibition.  Andreas does a great job of showing the interplay between public outcries, legislation, increased enforcement and the perverse impacts on smuggling--changing routes and techniques but not really impacting the flow very much.  This all leads to the drug war.

The futility of stopping smuggling raises a key question--should drugs be legalized to eliminate the incentives & crime that come with smuggling illicit goods?  That seems to be one key conclusion to draw from the book.  I talked to Peter at the APSA meeting, and he indicated that complete legalization is not the way to go, but that the focus needs to be on the demand side more than the supply side (I may be quoting him unfairly, but then again, this post promotes his book, so I doubt that he would mind).

It is, naturally, a pretty depressing take on things, as the US invests more and more effort (money, personnel, distractions) and gets very little out of it, as the drugs, antiquities, technologies, bodies, and other illicit trade continues.  The enforcement efforts lead to a bigger US government but not a more effective one and in some ways a more repressive one.  And this just provides more incentives for folks on the other side to organize and exploit.

I do like Andrea's plea at the end: "We need to take a deep breath.  The sky is not falling."  The urge to do something just to do something needs to be resisted.  Indeed.  Alas, the domestic political incentives have not changed much, so his pleas are unlikely to be heard.

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