A few years ago, when I rented a house in Mexico's Puerto Penasco, my friends and I crossed the border with nothing more than a flashed driver's license and answers to a couple of curt questions. As of today, that same trip requires a show of official travel documents. It's the latest step in the century-long process of closing the world's borders. Travel to America's neighbors, until recently a casual matter, now requires the permission of the state.
The whole world used to resemble a Mexican summer rental circa 2005. Actually, traveling much of the world was an even more casual matter as recently as the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. In a 2004 article for The Globalist, David Fromkin, a professor of history and law at Boston University, wrote:
According to the historian A. J. P. Taylor, "until August 1914, a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state." You could live anywhere you liked and as you liked. You could go to practically anywhere in the world without anyone's permission.
For the most part, you needed no passports -- and many had none. The French geographer André Siegfried traveled all around the world with no identification other than his visiting card -- not even a business card, but a personal one.
John Maynard Keynes remembered it, with wonder, as an era without exchange controls or customs barriers. You could bring anything you liked into Britain or send anything out.
Real financial freedom
You could take any amount of currency with you when you traveled, or send (or bring back) any amount of currency -- your bank did not report it to the government, as it does today.
And if you decided to invest any amount of money in almost any country abroad, there was nobody whose permission had to be asked, nor was permission needed to withdraw that investment and any profits it may have earned when you wanted to do so.
Contrast this with Friday's U.S. State Department press briefing, conducted by Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Consular Affairs Brenda Sprague:
Implementation of the land and sea border crossing requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, better known as WHTI, begins Monday, June 1st. This is the day that Americans will need WHTI-compliant documents in order to cross land and sea borders into the United States. WHTI-compliant documents verify both the identity and citizenship of the individual in a single document, which must be presented to the border official.
Travel document requirements for air travelers were tightened back in 2007. Today's deadline means that once-casual ground transit across America's northern and southern borders, and easy puddle jumps to the island nations of the Caribbean, are things of the past. From now on, if you want to drink in Tijuana, dine in Montreal, or sun yourself in Bermuda, you'll need to carry a passport, a passport card, a trusted traveler card, or an enhanced driver’s license (Real ID-style license that's effectively a national ID card).
Government officials tell us that the world has changed, so the rules have to change with them. International terrorism, espionage, smuggling and other dangers mean that we need to abide by tighter regulations regarding when and how we can cross borders.
Somehow, oddly, those new rules always seem to transform travel from a right into a privilege.
The terrorism concern seems a valid one, but it's not as new as the security-staters pretend. An attempt to blow up the British Parliament was thwarted over 400 years ago (and has made for bonfire-lit parties every Guy Fawkes days since). The faces and terminology change over time, but not the will to do harm.
Espionage is nothing new either. Spies have been around since there was something to spy on.
And smuggling is equally ancient. Despite the hysteria of modern drug-warriors, the existence of smugglers has historically been a sure sign that a government's tariffs are too high or that it's engaged in the doomed project of trying to ban stuff that many of its subjects are determined to have.
But we're all much safer because you now need passports to return to the country from Mexico and Canada.
Well ... maybe not. After all, it was only a few months ago that a hacker drover around San Francisco, reading data from passport cards in people's pockets using a homemade scanner.
And respected security expert Bruce Schneier has written of the Trusted Traveler program, "there are so many ways for the terrorists to get trusted traveler cards that the system makes it too easy for them to avoid the hard path through security."
So maybe we're not getting much more safety in return for having to show our papers. But show them you must -- even if, like two former presidents, you were caught unaware by the changed rules.
It'll probably be a while before I rent another house in Mexico.