Illicit: The Movie

In 2005, my friend Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy, published "Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy"--a unique and fascinating study of illicit trade in the new age of globalization. National Geographic has made a TV documentary based on the book, and on Tuesday night it showed a preview in Washington. The film has some gripping footage. It is well done and I recommend you watch it. But television has a limited attention span and not much taste for complications, and I have to say I did not find the movie as stimulating as the book.

It does successfully dramatize some of the key ideas. The scale of illicit trade--which encompasses, to name a few, counterfeiting, money-laundering, illegal drugs, fake medicines, loose nukes, and illegal immigrants--is huge. The pattern of trade is complex, organized and extended. Traders large and small have been much faster and more adept at developing their networks than governments have been in interrupting them: borders empower the criminals, and disempower the authorities. Also, this is a story about disturbing synergies. Once you have a supply chain for counterfeit handbags, or bogus pharmaceuticals, you can use it for other things too. In that sense, at least, illicit globalization is akin to a single multinational industry.

But there, I think, is where the film goes wrong. You can push that insight too far, and elide the differences between different kinds of illicit activity. The book is careful not to do that. The film, in contrast, develops this idea as its principal theme. It wants you to think that protecting intellectual property is almost a national security issue--that buying a fake Ralph Lauren shirt is only one step removed from facilitating nuclear terrorism. This is a view that the US Chamber of Commerce (which supported the production) doubtless finds to its liking, but it is not the right way to think about the issue.

In the Q&A after the showing, Moises said (as he emphasizes in the book) that governments need to prioritize if they are to get a grip on the problem. For instance, he favors, as I do, drug legalization. The film does not go there. It never really gets beyond the idea that illegal drugs equals counterfeit handbags equals loose nukes equals poisons in medicine bottles.

As I watched the movie I found myself thinking along these lines: suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the world had liberal trade, an enlightened policy of decriminalization of illicit drugs, and an equitable dispensation on global intellectual property rights. What kind of inroads against illicit trade would you make, merely by doing the right things in those areas? And think of the resources those changes would free up to address the issues--loose nukes, among them--that remained.