Three Cheers For Smugglers

During the days of the Soviet Union, Swiss watches were illegal. In the era of the American Prohibition, the sale, manufacture and the importation of intoxicating liquor was illegal. England's Navigation Acts imposed high tariffs and restrictions on goods sold to the American colonies and led to our 1776 War of Independence. The common theme in all of these acts is government seeking to interfere with, regulate or outlaw peaceable voluntary exchange between individuals.

I don't see anything wrong in people wearing Swiss watches, or having a drink, or purchasing tea from a Dutch producer rather than an English producer. But, often people in government think they know better and they use government's brute force to hinder peaceable voluntary exchange. In comes my hero the smuggler to the rescue. He's the guy who, in effect, tells us, "I know the government doesn't want you to have a Martini or a glass of wine but I can get it for you." He might have to run clandestine operations, blackmail and corrupt public officials, all of which adds to cost but at least you have the booze. Before we look down our noses at smugglers, we might consider that some of the men we celebrate each Fourth of July, such as John Hancock, were involved in smuggling.

You say, "What's with the history lesson, Williams?" According to a story titled, "Big Tobacco's Next Legal War" Newsweek (July 31, 2000), there's a flourishing trade in smuggled cigarettes. Tobacco companies legally manufacture their product and legally sell it to domestic and foreign wholesalers. Afterwards the cigarettes might change hands several times before they wind up in the hands of smugglers. Smugglers might proposition California or New York citizens: "Your government is trying to rip you off by making you pay $4.50 a pack for cigarettes. Give me $2.00 a pack and you can afford to puff your head off." In my book, that guy's a hero.

But here's the problem. Even though there's no moral justification for federal and state governments' tax extortion of cigarette smokers, most smokers relent because they are law-abiding people. Almost by definition, people who get involved with smuggling have a lower regard for laws in general. These are people who don't mind the use of violence in settling disputes. Neither do they mind corrupting public officials through intimidation, bribes or payoffs. Outlaws are major beneficiaries of the national attack on smokers.

A couple of weeks ago, federal authorities charged 18 people with smuggling cigarettes out of North Carolina, a state with low cigarette taxes, to Michigan where taxes are higher. The Feds have even set up a cigarette-smuggling "war room" in the U.S. Federal Building in Raleigh, North Carolina. Incredibly, the Feds are targeting cigarette manufacturers for smuggling. That makes as much sense as holding a tool manufacturer responsible for my assaulting you with a hammer he sold me.

Let's look at prospects. The British weren't successful in stopping our Founders from buying from whom they pleased. Eliot Ness and his team of U.S. Department of Justice agents weren't successful in stopping our parents from boozing it up. The nation's War on Drugs has been a total flop, not only in terms of not eliminating drug trade, but turning whole neighborhoods into war zones. Is there any reason to believe the government war on smuggled cigarettes is going to be any more successful? While we're at it let's ask ourselves two more questions: Is the war on cigarette smokers worth the crime creation and corruption of public officials that's becoming part and parcel of cigarette smuggling? And even more important: Is the attack on cigarette smokers worth further trivialization of our Constitution and rule of law?

Walter E. Williams
July 31,2000
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