Pro-Smuggling: Because I Have a Brain

All it takes to convince one of the rightness of smuggling is coming face to face with the wrongness of the legal alternative.

It’s the same principle all over the world, but every conversion story, as they say, is unique. There may be a few “cradle smugglers” out there who have been right in the head about free trade since birth — but they were probably raised by the kind of impassioned convert I have just become.

Here’s what happened . . .

A nice American lady I know heard that I was having trouble finding several books by a certain author. She generously offered to send me her old copies of those titles as a gift — and I was thrilled at her kindness. I e-mailed her my home address and she packed up the books: not much in the way of trade, but certainly free, yes?

The books arrived in my city this week, but were not sent on to my house. This is how it has been for at least the past seven years. The packages I send to friends in other countries get delivered straight to their doors; but anything they send me is held at the Customs department of my city’s central post office, so that I have to go across town to pick it up. This is to make it easier for the post office to shake me down for the “Customs Examination Fee” — something they charge for the service of opening my parcel and rifling through its contents before they finally hand it over to me.

It’s like a highwayman charging you extra because he had to go through your stuff for your valuables — which takes so much more effort on his part than if you simply handed everything over to him, neatly wrapped and properly inventoried. It makes sense only if you think the highwayman has the right to rob you.

Yesterday, as I have every time I’ve submitted to a Customs search, I wondered what they were looking for and whether they ever found it. Just today, when a man shuffled out of a back room to thumb through my books, I ran the possibilities through my mind . . . Drugs? (How would those fit between the pages?) Incriminating documents? (How would Customs even know?) Money? (Wouldn’t it be mine and therefore none of their business?)

Then I noticed the fellow showing some of the books to his superior, pointing to something on the covers. As usual, they had opened the package in front of me, but out of my reach, so I didn’t have a clear view . . . but I knew enough of books to guess that he was pointing at price stickers my friend must have forgotten to peel off.

The superior muttered something I did not catch and the man shuffled away to punch some numbers into a computer.

A few seconds later, I was presented with a bill.

I nearly had a heart attack when I saw how much they were charging me. It was thirty times the usual Customs Examination Fee and I was floored.

I demanded an explanation and was quickly presented with a well-worn document that they clearly kept handy for such moments.

According to the fine print, I am to be charged for the value of the contents of the package plus the original cost of shipping them to me. So that was why the price stickers were so important. My friend had declared each book’s value as one dollar, but the original retail price told a different story. The post office didn’t want to let me get away with anything it could conceivably tax out of me. You see, whatever the sender already paid for the books and for the postal service, I would be paying again — as if I were buying my gift from her, which is absurd.

No, make that: as if I were buying my gift from the Philippine government, for which there are no words.

If my friend lived next door to me and literally handed me a dozen old books, “smuggling” them into my house, it wouldn’t be anyone’s business but ours. Some loser with no life might say it was not really fair trade because I paid nothing for the books — and apparently, the Philippine post office is run by such losers with no lives (and even less logic), because they couldn’t hustle fast enough to make the exchange as “fair” as possible. Yet you won’t see them sending my friend a cut of what they’ve stolen — yes, stolen — from me.

After they were done computing my taxes, the bill was so high that I didn’t have enough cash with me to pay it; and since it was nearly closing time, I knew I’d have to go back today. The only reason I’ll do that at all is the thought of how my friend will feel if the books get shipped back to her. I don’t throw gifts back in people’s faces, so I’ll be damned if I let the Philippine government do that and claim it’s on my behalf.

Before they taped the box up again, I asked for the letter I knew my friend would have included with the books. The man who did the inspection was about to pass it over, when the woman at the front desk suddenly snatched it out of his hand so she could read it first. Apparently, not even personal correspondence is private any longer.

Now, can anyone please tell me where I can sign up for lifetime membership in the International Smugglers Association? I’m sure they send everything by private courier.

February 16, 2009