During the days of the Soviet Union, Swiss watches were illegal. In
the era of the American Prohibition, the sale, manufacture and
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 with 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.
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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, and 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" in the July 31 Newsweek,
there's a flourishing trade in smuggled cigarettes. Tobacco companies
legally manufacture their product and legally sell it to domestic and
foreign wholesalers. Afterward, 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,
N.C. 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.
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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 also in
turning whole neighborhoods into war zones. Is there any reason to
believe the government war on smuggled cigarettes is going to be any
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?