This Month

THE American and Canadian customs inspectors are such kindly and competent men that the very nature of their assignment must embarrass them. Each is obliged by his government to carry out certain odd procedures of no conceivable use to either nation. I doubt that any good whatever comes of it or that anything in the deal could stand a brisk whatof-it? test.

The hapless Canadian, for instance, must ask the American traveler if he is carrying “an expensive camera” or a radio set or some third object so improbable that I have forgotten what it is. The idea seems to be that this would be a terrible state of affairs, and all hands are vastly relieved when the traveler—hardly believing his ears at the bizarre items of the questions — answers them in the negative.

After knocking down these windmills, the Canadian inspector must then probe the intent of the traveler — where is he going, what will he do and for how long? This sounds as if Canada wished to discourage immigration, yet any American can move to Canada, and her policy towards immigrants is considerably more liberal than our own.

The American inspector in turn is handed an even nuttier chore. His homeward-bound compatriots can bring in, after a 48-hour stay, $200 worth of goods duty free; the inspector, however, must simulate our government’s interest in these pathetic odds and ends if they amount to more than $25. (An additional $300 exemption boon is granted to those who have stayed in Canada for more than twelve days. If there’s anything our government can’t abide, it’s a tourist who stays away less than twelve days.)

Because the American tourist is honest to the point of being a bore about it, he confesses purchases amounting to $127.63 and lists them on our government’s capacious form: “6 men’s handkerchiefs @ 58¢, 2 ditto @ 95¢; 2 pr. slipper socks, $4.10; 1 hooked rug, $14.00; 6 crocheted doilies, $4.00.” The list goes on — sweet-grass baskets, some Minton cups and saucers, knitting yarn, a few yards of linen.

“You are not bringing in any of these things for sale? They’re for your personal use?” the inspector asks patiently. The question must test the inspector’s composure, for he could hardly view the tourist’s oddments as the basis of a financial coup. But the tourist is proud of them and flattered by the question. Oh, entirely for his personal use, he replies with the pious air of one who would no more take money for a teacup than turn procurer. This answer is pleasing to the government too; the tourist is building up a perfect score. He has been away more than twelve days and he’s not going to offer any of his loot for sale — a paragon.

The Canadian government — to appease what American interests one can only conjecture — asserts a few simple export limits on the foodstuffs that an American may bring back: not more than “7 lbs. of flour, 5 lbs. of cheese, and 5 lbs. of pork products,” but all other food items “may be taken over the line in any reasonable quantity” without offending the Canadians. One gets the impression that contrabandistas in this category have been pretty well driven to cover, for I do not recall any serious search for an undeclared excess of pancake mix in our own case. We were as blameless of flour on our return as we were of Canadian cigars, but we could have been cheese-runners or sausagesmugglers of the deepest dye for all the Canadians cared. At that, I should not have blamed the Canadians for being sensitive about their common cheese, which is alarmingly orange in color and as tasteless as the American “pasteurized” product.

Naturally, the traveler indulges both governments in their border antics rather than stop a bullet or cross the frontier by stealth. On both sides of the line are economists, nationalists, lobbyists, and wizards who are able to prove that either country would collapse without its particular brand of trade regulation. They can tell you to a decimal point the consequences of a tariff switch on English china or American typewriters and what the repercussions in the wheat fields would be. But this assumes that large masses of people are predictable in their behavior and that the wizard himself can predict it correctly. Alas, scarcely any two wizards agree in their predictions. Who can foretell, even on the single matter of tourist traffic into Canada, the psychological and economic effects of a free-trade arrangement ?

There is something indecent in the solemn nonsense of a customs barrier between these two peaceful nations. Free trade might annoy the American farmer but it would gladden the citrus fruit people; if Canada has no dollars to spare for American goods under the present restrictions, she might quickly have dollars aplenty with more tourists and new markets. Does the oftrebuilt and repatched tariff structure represent a particular theory of economics, or is it more likely an attic piled with worn-out indiscretions of the lawgivers? A system of tariffs is a form of economic planning — or regimentation — at its dreamiest : lacking the all-wise and infinitely just basis which will suit everyone, tariffs work about as well as Technocracy or the Townsend Plan would work. Yet the only two great freeenterprise nations which survive today, both turning substantially the same face towards the rest of the world and — like it or not — sharing most of this continent as neighbors, still play out the childish game.

Divided we stand!