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The Big Book

How the U.S. was formed by smuggling and piracy

Kai Ryssdal Feb 28, 2013
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The United States  expends a lot of energy trying to keep illicit stuff from entering this country: guns, drugs, even illegal immigrants. But Peter Andreas points out that smuggling and piracy were a financial foundation of colonial American society.

Andreas is a political scientist at Brown University, and has a new book out called “Smuggler Nation.” He says that, before the Revolution, smuggling was de rigeur.

“You were ripping off the Crown. You could be considered kind of a patriotic smuggler,” Andreas says.

That all changed once the U.S. became an independent nation. The newly formed government needed revenue.

“One of the founding pillars was in fact the [United States] Customs Service,” says Andreas. “It was really important to re-socialize merchants to a stop smuggling, and it was very hard to do. These people had grown up smuggling, celebrated smuggling, and suddenly it was unpatriotic to smuggle.”

Andreas says that smuggling and illicit trade still make up a significant portion of the modern economy, and they always will.  But but it’s impossible to calculate exactly how much. “Anyone who tells you differently is lying.”

But Andreas says not to freak out, and he discourages “alarmist, hyperbolic rhetoric to suggest that somehow we’re dealing with an unprecedented fundamentally, new threat to the country and the world.”