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SPECIAL REPORT: Seeking a New World : History : National Borders Blur in Era of Economics

December 11, 1990

"When you enter this island," an astonished French traveler wrote after encountering English customs agents for the first time, "you will be very carefully inspected at Dover, after which you may travel the length of Great Britain without meeting the least inquiry. . . . The customs posts are set around the circumference of the kingdom; one is inspected there once and for all."

Having customs barriers only at the border of a nation may not seem unusual to a present-day traveler, but the Abbe Coyer, who was incredulous at the lack of customs barriers inside England, made his discovery more than two centuries ago. And he had good reason for surprise.

In that period, it was common practice for towns and districts all over Europe to charge separate tolls and tariffs for goods entering their jurisdiction--to the great detriment of trade and economic growth. Abolishing such barriers, which England was among the first to do, was one of the little-understood but crucial steps in the creation of the modern world.

For most Americans, the "modern era" began with the invention of the automobile, the telephone and television. But many historians, looking at deeper patterns, date the "modern era" from the end of the 15th Century. It was then that a surge of major changes--including removal of internal tariffs--began to transform Europe from a jumble of feudal fiefdoms into a continent of dynamic and powerful sovereign states whose interests and influence spread around the globe.

Landmarks of that shift include the opening of the age of exploration with Columbus' voyage to America in 1492; the spread of the printing press and other mechanical technology; the beginning of modern science under Copernicus; and the first stirrings of the Age of Reason, with Erasmus. But the most important institutional change was the invention of the nation-state--for this is when England, France and Spain were first unified in the forms we know them today.

The nation-state was a major innovation: It enabled kings and queens to tax their subjects, build large armies and compete in the pursuit of territorial empires. It also enabled merchants to sell their goods in much larger markets, because the new states began abolishing internal customs barriers. The economic boom that resulted turned Europe into the world's center of financial and political power. Over the course of several centuries, it provided a base for the development of nationalism and the democratic revolutions in America and France.

Now, some scholars suggest, history may be completing that era and beginning another, with equally revolutionary transformations in technology, political structures and economics. The age of empires is over; the great nations that once devoted their energies to the conquest of territory now compete, instead, for shares of a global economic market.

A surge of new technology comparable to the scientific revolution that began in the 16th Century is transforming our economies and our way of life. Just as Gutenberg's printing press changed history in its day, the computer and the communication satellite have changed history in ours.

And the sovereign nation-state, the pivotal political institution that rose to power during the Modern Era, is slowly beginning to recede. Nations that once battled to extend their sovereignty are now voluntarily giving some away, the better to compete in an economy that respects no national boundaries.

French travelers to England now go through no customs checks at all; soon, under the European Community's plan for economic integration in 1992 (the 500th anniversary, coincidentally, of Columbus' voyage), they will carry the same passports, use the same currency and perhaps even consider themselves citizens of a continent--not of the old nations that were formed centuries years before.

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