Alan L. Karras. Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History.
Alan Karras has written a brief but ambitious and engaging book on the role of smuggling in the modern world. Its ambition is both its major strength and major weakness. He hopes to show that smuggling played a key role in modern state-building, especially in the development and coordination of laws and regulations. The problem, as he is well aware, is that evidence of smuggling is fragmentary, elusive, and usually nonexistent in archives due to the clandestine and illegal nature of the activity. Smugglers did all they could to go about their business undetected and he believes they usually succeeded. As a result, the evidence he can bring to bear does not support the weight of his larger arguments about the role of smuggling in world history. The evidence succeeds somewhat better in supporting more modest arguments about the role of smuggling in the political and economic development of the Caribbean basin under mercantilism, the place and period from which he draws the vast majority of his evidence, but in both instances the style of argumentation is problematic. Nevertheless, the book is well organized, deals with complicated issues clearly, and has an excellent bibliography and notes. For all of the above reasons, his book could prove very useful in a course for advanced undergraduate and graduate students of world and Caribbean history because students could take up, as research topics for senior projects and master's theses, his provocative and plausible but empirically weak arguments.
Consisting of five chapters and a conclusion, the book wastes no time engaging the reader's attention. Chapter 1 begins with the author's major conclusions about the nature and significance of smuggling in world history: 1) "the same people who regulated smuggling often benefited from it"; 2) "states preached free trade but also restricted it"; 3) "those who broke trading restrictions were rarely punished"; 4) "those who refused to comply with trading restrictions smugglers and their customers--constituted a wide segment of colonies and empires"; 5) "smugglers did not often resort to violence"; and 6) "their crimes were an essential part of state building" (1-2). The remainder of the book is devoted to presenting arguments and evidence in support of these conclusions but they are unevenly discussed and some are not well supported by the available evidence. The main problem is that many of the above claims have quantitative modifiers ("often," "rarely," "wide") but right from the beginning the author states that he will not explicitly address quantitative issues due to the limited evidence of smuggling that found its way to archives and he finds questions of magnitude less important than understanding smugglers' roles and significance (2-3). The difficulty is that he then goes on to make quantitative claims throughout the book with no evidence to back them up. He sounds an appropriate note of explanatory caution that "readers must always remain cognizant that any evidence emerged from the archives as individual cases and stories; this makes it impossible to generate any accurate quantifications of identified patterns" (88) but he rarely follows this epistemological humility in stating his conclusions: "Smugglers more often ended up as victims of pirate raids and attacks than they did making common cause with them" (42) and "Corruption permeated most, if not all, levels of any given society as well" (123). Methodological difficulties arise from his use of a limited number of case studies to derive broad patterns across time and place--cases he admits are exceptional and cannot be taken as representative (165, note 21). The cases studies are engaging and entertaining; they begin in Chapter 1 and continue as a delightful thread throughout the book. The vast majority come from European colonies in the Caribbean between 1750 and 1850 with a few coming later and from other regions of the world.
Chapter 2 argues persuasively for the most part that smugglers are quite different from pirates, who routinely use violence and confrontation to achieve their goals, while smugglers use stealth and adaptation to achieve their ends and do not want to call attention to themselves by public acts of violence. It is a useful rule of thumb. The argument succeeds mainly because his evidence reinforces the common-sense (if not axiomatic) understanding of smuggling as a covert operation but the author never discusses the well-documented and routine violence of "coyotes," who smuggle undocumented workers across the U.S.-Mexico border, even though he discusses recent traffic in human beings across that same border (103). "Coyotes" complicate any neat or axiomatic division between violence-prone pirates and non-violence-prone smugglers. Chapter 3 is a bit of a detour into the ideas of classical political economy but he presents these ideas expertly and appears to subscribe to Adam Smith's views of human nature, especially when it comes to understanding the motivations for smuggling across wide swaths of time and place. Karras claims that this discussion of political economy provides a good basis for analyzing and evaluating the relation of a state to the consumers within it. Chapter 4 proposes patterns of smuggling in the modern world which are meant to serve as an aid to understanding and are "not meant to be exhaustive" (73). This intellectual humility is well placed but at the end of the same paragraph Karras writes, "so long as there were revenue laws and consumers, violations of those revenue laws took place." Such a statement does not encourage historical investigation since the answer is already known; it is an absolute and ahistorical axiom that arises from classical political economy, not historical inquiry. It isn't even all that helpful or specific; it could be held to be an axiom regarding any law on the books. Karras does note that objects smuggled were not universal but were context specific (73); that seems to be an historical claim worth investigating and he does a fine job doing so. Chapter 5 deals with government corruption with regard to contraband, two of the key words in the book's subtitle. His main conclusion in this chapter is that governments were generally lax in enforcing statutes on tax and tariff evasion because of the monetary and political costs of strict enforcement. This chapter abounds with ironies like lax enforcement of the law enhanced a regime's legitimacy and corruption relieved tension between governing and governed and restored governability. While thematically attuned to the book, the Conclusion seems out of place. It is not so much a conclusion to an historical study as an exhortation that harkens back to Chapter 3 and looks to the present and future: it is a polemic based on classical political economy that argues for the necessity of citizens paying taxes and duties so government can protect civility and citizens' life, liberty and property; Karras concludes that all forms of tax evasion, including smuggling, challenges the material basis and legitimacy of government. Ironically, the case studies and arguments he presents in his book do not give him much room to argue for such an abstract and idealized view of government and civil society which he derives not so much from history as from classical political economy. Well versed in the literature, Karras clearly conveys the historical, economic, political, social, and ethical issues involved in a study of smuggling. He calls for historians to test his arguments especially in periods outside the mercantilist era and places outside the Caribbean (ix). Without a doubt, his book lays the groundwork for such an important enterprise and it invites classroom discussion of issues of evidence, methodology, and interpretation.
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|Publication:||World History Bulletin|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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