The Evolving Ingenuity of the Smuggler Trade
Over the millennia, governments have enacted edicts banning the
production, import and sale of certain goods. But despite these bans,
local markets still exists for the banned products. Traders merely
develop more innovative methods by which to transport such products
across borders. For instance, at various times, traders have used
trained birds such as carrier and homing pigeons to carry small items to
designated destinations, or animals such as mules to carry contraband
across borders. Regardless of how vigilant authorities become at
enforcing bans on the import of prohibited products, such products
continue to move across borders.
America’s era of prohibition was a classic example of how a product
got to customers who wanted it, even at elevated prices. During that
era, production of alcoholic beverages moved offshore and into hidden
production facilities. At some locations, a tire repair shop operated in
the front part of a building while brewing occurred in the rear part of
the building. Freight and passenger trains crossed the US-Canada border
on daily schedules. Prohibition officials often undertook surprise
checks of train manifests, along with randomly inspecting the contents
of freight and passenger carriages.
Sometimes they were lucky, the result of a tip that some metal milk
containers in a railway baggage car contained booze, for instance, often
cheap alcohol mixed with flavoring, a possible decoy. Nevertheless,
officials were pleased with their successes at having intercepted
illegal shipments. Despite the occasional success of such surprise
inspections, the speakeasies of Chicago received a regular and reliable
supply of precious beverages via passenger trains from Toronto that had
been subject to “successful” border inspections. Al Capone’s associates
had discovered ingenious hiding places for booze on trains.
During the prohibition era, boats that sailed on the ocean and along
inland waterways carried a large percentage of the trans-border alcohol
trade. Boat owners of that era had ingenious ways of disguising their
boats, such as painting different colours on either side of the boat.
They had innovative ways of making a laden southbound boat appear to be
riding high in the water, and the empty boat ride low in the water on
the northbound sailing. Other boat owners learned to camouflage their
vessels so as to make them more difficult to detect.
Some of the lessons learned during the prohibition era to make a boat
more inconspicuous still apply today, except for a different purpose.
About a month ago, an American coast guard ship made a rare discovery
when the ship encountered a vessel known as a self-propelled
semi-submersible sailing in the eastern Pacific Ocean. A four-person
crew may operate such a vessel that is purposefully designed to be
inconspicuous and very difficult to detect. They are designed to sail
with minimal wake (virtual absence of bow wave) and generate a minimal
“Whereas the smuggling trade
of an earlier era may have used carrier pigeons and mules to
transport items across borders, modern smugglers have access
to a wide range of alternative, off-the-shelf transportation
While it is rare for coast guard patrols to capture such a vessel,
this one carried a payload of 2,380 kilograms of cocaine, worth an
estimated $107 million based on market prices. High market demand
combined with restrictions on supply assures high prices for substances
such as cocaine. Those high prices then translate into substantial
profits—sufficiently substantial to fund the development of
semi-submersibles capable of carrying the product. This is only the
second incident in recent years to involve a navy or coast guard crew
discovering a semi-submersible.
Whereas the smuggling trade of an earlier era may have used carrier
pigeons and mules to transport items across borders, modern smugglers
have access to a wide range of alternative, off-the-shelf transportation
technologies. Fully-operational scale-model radio- and
computer-controlled cars, motorcycles, trucks, airplanes, boats, and
helicopters are readily available at hobby and toy stores, while
hobbyists are capable of building larger and more sophisticated versions
of such toys. Small boats are easily available at sporting goods stores,
and interested customers may also purchase readymade mini-submarines.
The mere existence of a self-propelled semi-submersible that can sail
almost undetected is testimony to the ingenuity of private people who
design and build such technology using private funding. Companies
engaged in the tourist trade provide underwater sightseeing trips,
showing interested visitors the spectacular coral reefs off some
nations’ coasts. These private sightseeing submarines provide their
owners with reliable and profitable service, as do the semi-submersibles
that sail just below the ocean surface.
Some readers will be aware of the debacle surrounding Canada’s
purchase of used British built submarines, at considerable cost to
taxpayers. While the publicly funded submarines were in the dry dock for
extended durations while under repair, privately funded and privately
owned submarines and semi-submersibles were in service earning revenue
for their owners. During the summer, when tourists visit the Arctic, it
may be quite possible for a private owner using a modified sightseeing
submarine to offer undersea sightseeing services of the Arctic seafloor.
Tourists may even get to see a foreign submarine.
Private entities design, build and operate the transportation
technology used by both the smuggling trade and the tourist trade.
Designers and builders of the technology operate in an unrestrained,
competitive free-market environment where customers seek only the most
reliable technology that best does the required job. Such has been the
case for the majority of tourist cruise ships, and especially so for the
sightseeing submarines and even for self-propelled semi-submersibles.
Government prohibition presents a challenge to an unregulated free
market to deliver the goods to customers who are willing to buy. It
requires the development of reliable and cost-competitive transportation
technology that can carry cargo and cross borders without being
detected. It also requires the development of telecommunications
technology that assures total privacy. The increase in the monetary
value of illicit international trade suggests that an unregulated free
market can actually work very well, and debunks those economic theories
that call for state regulation and control of national economies.
From the same author
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322 – May 15, 2014)
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321 – April 15, 2014)
Private Initiative in Producing Food in Cities in the
321 – April 15, 2014)
Private and Communal Property Rights in the
320 – March 15, 2014)
First written appearance of the
word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.
Le Québécois Libre
Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary
cooperation since 1998.