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Illicit, by Mosés Naím is a tragic book. It is considered, insightful, wide-ranging, deep, and so close to amazing. Had Naím gone just a little further, it could have been brilliant, and the tragedy is that he didn’t. Perhaps I should back up, and explain.

Naím is the editor of Foreign Policy. He has written a broad, accessible book about the rise of economic networks and specialties within those networks that carry a broad scope of illicit items around the globe. He shows how the same networks are carrying not only drugs, weapons and counterfeit products, but also people and money.

A key theme of the book is how networks shift and adjust in response to both market and regulatory pressures. He distinguishes modern business networks from stereotypes of organized crime on the basis of independence. That independence leads to fluidity. His discussion of how governments organize with each other to create pressure is good. His discussion of market demand, in contrast, is somewhat lacking. He discusses states where different activities are legal, but fails to develop the idea as fully as I would like.

In reading, I was routinely frustrated by his slipping from idea to idea. He moves from counterfeit medicines made with anti-freeze to CDs made without a license. These are the same only from the orientation that both are illegal. There is a continuum of products, from extra CDs stamped by a production line from the original masters to counterfeit aircraft parts made with the wrong steel. There is an important difference between medicines made carefully and correctly (without a license to an overseas patent), and compressed chalk. No one thinks that the Canal Street Louis Vitton bag is real, and no one wants their medicine to be just sugar pills.
(There’s a New York Times story which illustrates a lot of these ideas, “Wall St. Bets on Gambling on the Web.”)

In many ways and many places he acknowledges tensions and the drivers for much of the illicit trade he chronicles. He nails the issues: “illicit trade is driven by high profits, not low morals,” and “give Governments goals they can achieve” are two of the section headings in the “What to Do” chapter. The achievability section is even focused on harm reduction through decriminalization. (It includes a brief reference to Sweden decriminalizing the sale of sex, while criminalizing its purchase.) Even though these sections are there, he never completes his journey from orientating around the state. He discusses the ideas of morals versus economics — yet he titles his book not “Black Markets,” but “Illicit.”

Those states which aim for complete control at best become stultified and backwards. Far more often they become twisted and grotesque. From generating the conditions for corruption their own officials need to function, to massacring their own citizens, totalitarian states are dysfunctional. Calls to “get everyone involved” and “build political will” (two more sections) scare me. I don’t need a sense of national purpose to make my life complete, I need liberty to pursue my own aims, and take satisfaction from my successes.

This book, much like Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” or van Creveld’s “Rise and Decline of the State,” chronicles limits of power and control.

The real tragedy in reading this book is how he sees the crisis which faces the nation state, and stops. He doesn’t bring himself to the issue of different and legitimate preferences, from those in the US who think a CD is worth $5 to those who think an hour of lawn-clearing is worth $5, and the immigrant who shows up to take that work. Now, admittedly, Congress has provided for copyright and immigration laws to keep those things from us. They have made them illicit. But the fellow who hires the undocumented worker, and that worker, are both happy with the deal. (There may be someone who is sad he didn’t get $8 an hour for that work. Heck, I’m sad I didn’t get $300 an hour for clearing lawns. My Congressman wasn’t sympathetic to requiring the profession be more highly regulated.)

There are some things (slavery chief amongst them) that we all agree are wrong. There are many others, from cheating on taxes to smoking a joint, which most Americans have done. In labeling all of these illicit, we cheapen those which really are. We degrade the concept, and the remnants of respect for the authority which declares it illicit.

Had Naím had dug deeper into this tension of what is illicit, and why and what are the limits of what we should declare to be illicit, the book would have been so much more. Despite all my critiques, this is an important book, and worth reading.

(Thanks to John Robb of Global Guerillas for his “BOOK REVIEW: ILLICIT by Moises Naim.”)

One comment on "Illicit"

  • Nudecybot says:

    Great review Adam, sounds interesting I will definitely pick it up. Any other books which would complement this one by continuing deeper into the critical analysis of the issues?

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