All Commentary
Monday, May 31, 2021 Leer en Español

I Was a Smuggler—and Make No Apologies For It

Banning the transport of stuff that people desire is much easier said than done and may well produce more victims than the stuff itself.

Image Credit: US archives

Are you in favor of smuggling or are you against it? Think carefully before you answer with a categorical “yes” or “no.”

According to his son Arthur, the great comedian Groucho Marx once listed his occupation on an airport customs form as “smuggler.” Government officials did not think it was funny, but then, they never do.

Smuggling—illegally transporting goods into or out of a jurisdiction—has a certain stigma attached to it. Most people think that if it is against the law to transport something, the politicians surely must have had a good reason to make it so. The fact is, they always have reasons but they’re not always good ones. Often, smuggling is a victimless crime.

Cross-border sex trafficking that involves captives or minors is a form of smuggling—one that a decent, rights-respecting humanitarian should oppose. The key words here are “captives” and “minors.” The victims are real, obvious, and non-consenting. Smuggling slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s was a form of human trafficking too, but surely one that any decent, rights-respecting humanitarian would support—even though it was illegal.

Totalitarian regimes try to prevent the free movement of thoughts and ideas. I can think of no justification for making such nonviolent activity illegal. These days, technology empowers people more than ever to transport thoughts and ideas governments oppose, so prohibitions are mostly futile anyway. And I proudly confess to having engaged in idea smuggling myself, numerous times during the 1980s.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Empire, I smuggled books (and raised money to support book smuggling) into Eastern European countries such as Poland and into the Soviet Union itself. One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose that I arranged to be translated, published and distributed in Polish in defiance of the communist regime in Warsaw. I make no apologies for that, so don’t ask me for one.

Often, government forbids the movement of goods for no better reason than to confer a monopoly privilege on a politically favored and well-connected group. I myself have confessed to milk smuggling and offer no apologies for that either. In 11 of the Most Memorable Acts of Civil Disobedience, I wrote about it:

One of my earliest memories from childhood was an act of civil disobedience. My family resided near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, about 11 miles from the Ohio border town of Negley. At the time, Pennsylvania prohibited the unauthorized introduction and sale of milk from Ohio. On many a Saturday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father and I would drive over to Negley and fill the back seat of our car with good, cheap milk. During the drive back home, he would caution me to “keep it covered and don’t say anything if the cops pull us over.”

For me, milk smuggling was a thrill ride. It was downright exciting to evade a stupid law while keeping an eye out for a cop who might have nothing better to do than bust a couple of notorious dairy dealers. I know my dad made a few bucks when he re-sold the milk to happy neighbors. We never had any regrets or pangs of conscience for committing this victimless crime.

Who do you suppose lobbied for laws in Pennsylvania against the importation of perfectly good milk from Ohio? You can be assured our neighbors did not. I doubt that any consumers did. When it comes to most legislation, economist Murray Rothbard said that if you ask “Cui bono?” (Latin for “who benefits?”), the answer usually reveals who lobbied for it.

As a former milk smuggler, I think the 19th Century economist Nassau Senior had people like me in mind when he praised smuggling. Nick Snow cited him in a 2011 article for FEE:

As Nassau Senior put it, “[T]he smuggler is a radical and judicious reformer.” In countries which excessively prohibit the importation of foreign goods, he said, “the smuggler is essential to the well-being of the whole nation.” Economists such as Senior saw those who defy these bad laws as our only protection against the ruin these laws bring.

After I wrote about my milk adventures, Robert W. McGee of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina composed a short paper on the subject titled Smuggling Milk Into Pennsylvania: A Case Study in Rent-Seeking. He pointed out that some rather illustrious people have been smugglers, such as John Hancock and John F. Kennedy’s father. McGee blessed my behavior with this line:

Aside from the fact that it was a profitable venture, it was an act of moral and civic duty, if one begins with the premise that there is a moral duty to break bad laws. As Martin Luther King Jr. would say, “one has a moral duty to disobey unjust laws.”

Disobedience to unjust laws (Jim Crow segregation, for example) is sometimes the best way to draw attention to the injustice, I’ve pointed out. Even Abraham Lincoln noted that “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

Using the key word “smuggling” in the search function at, I was surprised at the volume of articles we have published on the topic. FEE authors have written about the smuggling of alcohol, drugs, maple syrup, cigarettes, and a host of other goods—as you can see via the links I provide in the recommended readings at the bottom of this article.

Perhaps laws against the transport of hazardous, life-threatening substances that might yield actual victims make more sense than laws against moving milk around. But I suspect that the failure of America’s decades-long war against drugs is a testimony to a truism: Banning the transport of stuff that people desire is much easier said than done and may well produce more victims than the stuff itself.

Back to the original question: Are you in favor of smuggling or are you against it?

I leave that to each reader to decide for himself. But the most dubious position, it seems to me, is a categorical, “I’m against it!”

For additional information, see:

Confessions of a Secret Marxist by Lawrence W. Reed

Smuggling Milk Into Pennsylvania: A Case Study in Rent-Seeking by Robert W. McGee

Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana by PopMatters staff

Louis Armstrong Broke Barriers with Music, Optimism, and the Sheer Force of his Personality by Lawrence W. Reed

11 of the Most Memorable Acts of Civil Disobedience by Lawrence W. Reed

Syrup Smugglers Take on the Maple Mafia by Eileen Wittig

Meet the Human Smugglers by Bryan Caplan

Smuggled Cigarettes, Unteachable Politicians by John Attarian

Russian Smugglers Renovate Road Neglected by the Government by Eileen Wittig

In North Korea, Black Markets are Saving Lives by Richard Mason

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is