Chronicle Book Review: Smuggler Nation

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas (2013, Oxford University Press, 454 pp., $29.95 HB)

Wow. With Smuggler Nation, Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas has hit the ball out of the park -- or over the border. This book should be required reading for not only for people interested in we got to our current mess in the war on drugs, but also for anyone interested in American history in general, and the twinned growth of illicit commerce and the ever-increasing policing resources designed to thwart it in particular.

What makes Smuggler Nation so essential for people primarily interested in drug policy is the manner in which it situates drug prohibition and efforts to suppress the drug trade within the larger historical context of state efforts to control -- or prohibit -- trade. The war on drugs (or at least its interdiction component) didn't drop on us out of the sky, but was built upon already existing national-level efforts to enforce proscriptions on free trade, dating back to Jefferson's abortive ban on US ships trading with any foreign nations, the more successful, but still long-lasting and highly contentious effort to ban the slave trade, and Prohibition-era border enforcement.

Andreas shows that, going back to colonial times, smuggling and illicit commerce played a crucial role in the creation and expansion of the American economy, and, indeed, in the anti-British sentiment that led the way to the American Revolution in the first place. Whether it was enriching Providence and Boston merchants in the triangular slave trade, stealing intellectual property from England at the start of the Industrial Age, selling American cattle to hungry British troops stationed in Canada during the War of 1812, allying with the smuggler-pirate Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans in that same war, selling contraband whiskey to Indians, smuggling guns into Mexico (in the 1840s, in addition to now) -- the list goes on and on -- smuggling and illicit commerce was, and continues to be, part and parcel of the American story.

Andreas also show that those efforts to control unsanctioned commerce led directly -- and continue to lead directly -- to ever larger, more expansive, more expensive, and  more unintended consequence-generating law enforcement efforts to suppress it. We saw it with the early growth of the US Navy to combat tax evading smugglers, and how those efforts rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade. We saw it with the expansion of drug war interdiction efforts in the 1980s, where blockading the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade, and helped provoke the metastasis of what had been largely low-key, local Mexican smuggling networks into the Frankenstein monster drug cartels of today.

We can see that at work today in the current debate over the immigration reform bill working its way through Congress. House Majority Leader Boehner thought he could sell the bill to his conservative caucus by agreeing to expansive provisions to "regain control of the border" or "secure the border" by spending billions of dollars and adding 20,000 more federal agents along the Mexican border. (Nevermind that even that's not likely to be enough to satisfy Boehner's caucus, some of whom might support the bill but others of which have charmingly compared Mexican immigrants to dogs and asserted that those DREAM Act kids are mostly drug mules.)

There were 3,000 border agents in the early 1990s, 7,000 by the late 1990s, and there are 20,000 right now. The immigration bill would double that number again. As Andreas, relying on the historical record, notes, that is unlikely to stop drug smuggling or people-smuggling (there are much deeper driving forces to such phenomenon than law enforcement), but merely to divert it or reroute it, to corrupt enforcers, and to inspire the smugglers to come up with new technologies to get around it and gain entrée into Fortress America.

Andreas also makes an important point about "the threat" of transnational organized crime. That's pretty much just a fancy way of saying smuggling, he asserts, and it is nothing new. As he shows throughout Smuggler Nation, trade in contraband has been part of global trade since, well, forever. And now, given the rapid expansion of global commerce in recent decades, it would be surprising if contraband trade isn't expanding, too. It is, he argues, but possibly at a slower rate than the expansion of licit global trade. All of the hulaballoo over "the menace" of illicit trade is overdone, he dares to suggest.

Andreas is an academic who specialized in the US-Mexico border in his early career, and his publisher, Oxford University Press, is an academic press, but his writing is quite accessible to the lay reader. Smuggler Nation is chock full of great lost stories from American history, stories that hold serious lessons for us today as we struggle against the behemoth that our prohibition industry has become. Smuggler Nation will help explain how we got here, and you'll learn plenty and have lots of fun along the way.  This book needs to be on your bookshelf, and well-worn at that.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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It Gets Better…

I read Smuggler Nation and was stunned silent for a week afterward.  Peter Andreas has created a true classic.  

K-12 public education in the U.S. deliberately focuses on history or mythology that paints a pretty picture of the country.  Germany does the same in their schools.  So a lot of really juicy history deliberately gets swept under the rug, especially if it offends somebody.

Another great book on the colonization smuggling era is Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean by Edward Kritzler.  Jewish refugees of the Spanish Inquisition fled Europe for the Caribbean and displayed their contempt by acting as privateers for the Dutch and English.  They did damage.  Much like when Jewish refugees fled Germany and helped the U.S. build the atomic bomb.

Little known fact:  the American Revolution was financed by money derived from pirated Spanish treasure, which was borrowed by John Adams from Dutch bankers happy to see England lose its colonies and naval dominance of the high seas.  Smuggler nation then, smuggler nation now.

thanks in part to your

thanks in part to your ringing endorsement, gio, i've added this book to my reading list. many glowing reviews at amazon as well.

the problem with such books is that not nearly enough sheeple are inclined to read them. among the literate, i suspect far less than 1%. many simply lack or have stunted critical thinking, partly thanks to the 'education' that's 'free and compulsory' courtesy of the 'state'. are u familiar with john taylor gatto's writing? check out his' 'dumbing us down'. among other things, he shows how 'education' in amerikkka has largely been based upon a prussian model designed to produce compliant, dull witted corporate drones.

essentially the precursor to

essentially the precursor to today's multinational corporation, under the direct protection of an imperial system.

clearly, this has no resemblance to today's U.S., which explains why the "Tea Party patriots" are completely unconcerned with contemporary corporate welfare, where the U.S. subsidizes multinationals via national governments and is running a global imperial system /s

I do agree that there is a

I do agree that there is a pervasive sense of "bullyness" in our culture now, but I don't think that is an inherent result of the roots of the country and our rise to power. In 1941, the United States was coming off almost half a century of isolationism, something impressive for a country of such economic power. Much like the Portuguese or the Dutch, we were one of the few Western powers not to extensively exploit an industrial or economic superiority in a bid for world hegemony, astonishing in an era where industrial strength was the currency of power. This was something Stalin later understood, when he embarked on an industrialization on a mammoth scale, almost single-handedly creating a superpower of the USSR.

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