Thursday, July 4, 2013

Smuggler Nation: How the Bad Boy Made Good

Book Review: Smuggler Nation by Peter Andreas

"America is a smuggler nation", posits Peter Andreas. As a nation we seem to take a perverse pride in our checkered past, starting with flipping the British Empire the proverbial bird by dumping a load of tea into Boston Harbor (yes, I over-simplify). No other country struts the failings and foibles of our Founding Fathers as much as the good 'ol USA. Personally, I think that is a good thing to some degree.

In Smuggler Nation, Peter Andreas gives us a guided tour through the history of the underground economy in the United States, peeking into historical closets that many Americans may not have been aware of. As a book about American history, Smuggler Nation excels. Where it falls, in my opinion, is in establishing the extent that smuggling has helped fuel our "evolution to a pre-eminent superpower".

The exchange of goods and services, whether on the black market or the open market, is exactly that: an exchange. Our imports of Canadian booze, or French condoms, or Mexican workers have been offset by direct payments and indirect costs of one sort or another; in the long run it is a zero-sum game.

At the same time, the exporters of these goods profited (often illegally on their own side) from the artificially high prices commanded by the contraband nature of their product. Why have these countries not been advantaged in the same way -- are we just better black-marketeers?

I don't think so. I believe America has succeeded due to our unique geographical location, our vast human and natural resources, occasionally exceptional leadership, and a fair amount of luck. While it is ironic that the world's pre-eminent nation of smugglers now seeks to stem the tide of the underground economy, smuggling has been a side effect of our success, not it's driving force.