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No Secure Borders

How smuggling made America strong

Jun. 26, 2013
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Due to its attention to such of-the-moment issues, such as immigration, drug smuggling and gun trafficking, many will undoubtedly read Peter Andreas’ excellent Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America (Oxford University Press) for information on current policy debates. Yet those looking for ways that government officials can “solve” such problems won’t find them in Andreas’ work. “Smuggling,” he says, “has been as much about building up the American state as about subverting it.” Despite a strain of anti-smuggling rhetoric heard from politicians and policymakers throughout U.S. history, the act of smuggling proved crucial to both the foundation and growth of the American state and economy. With such roots exposed, contemporary policy stalemates become easier to understand. How, in other words, do you go about eliminating something that has been so instrumental to our success?

Andreas, a professor of political science at Brown University, is at his best when exploring the history of smuggling during the American Revolution and in the early decades following the formation of the Republic. As Andreas points out, “there never was a golden age of secure borders,” and his early chapters highlight how those that would become key players in the revolt against Great Britain, including the likes of John Hancock, had taken advantage of such porous borders as they amassed great fortunes through illicit trade. The American Revolution was, in no small part, motivated by the British crackdown—itself motivated by debt from a costly war with France—on such activities as the smuggling of West Indies molasses to New England distilleries.

Other Founding Fathers encouraged the continuation of a variety of smuggling activities as the fledgling nation strove to catch up with the Industrial Revolution that had helped Great Britain become an economic powerhouse. Alexander Hamilton became an advocate for intellectual piracy and technology smuggling, especially in the textile industry. Agents from the United States, often secretly financed by the secretary of the treasury, smuggled both machinery and individuals with the expertise to run such machinery from Great Britain to America. This process of what Andreas terms “illicit industrialization” helps the author further reframe “the founding story as a smuggling story.”

Yet as America came to be a global leader, officials at all levels of government recast such smuggling as a drain on the nation’s finances and a threat to the country’s morality. At this point, a variety of agencies, organizations and surveillance tactics came into being to stop the illicit sale of such things as smuggled clothing, drugs, pornography and alcohol. On the one hand, such strategies often created lucrative underground economies that only made these products more desirable—and more expensive. More importantly, this criminalization of the smuggling of certain goods put into place a strong state, one with the power to police all sorts of behavior and interactions. We live with the legacy of both such developments even in the early 21st century.

Despite the continued development of mechanisms meant to halt smuggling, we live in an era when illicit goods can be found everywhere (especially on our computers). At the same time, American policymakers continue to take a rather ambiguous position on certain types of smuggling: Washington, for example, has continually stifled United Nations efforts to better combat small arms trafficking. Andreas’ work provides the context and history for such ambiguity. The question we must now answer is: What are we going to do with it?


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