From Ancient times, states have levied taxes on goods crossing borders. In the main these dues – especially those levied on imports – respond to fiscal concerns : to fill the public coffers.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the transformation of border taxes into tolls was generalised and anarchical in Europe. Before Charlemagne’s Empire was split up, these dues were not paid into the royal treasury, but into the hands of powerful feudal lords. They increased in number and amount for purely fiscal purposes. They were collected either by local officials or by tax farmers (private tax gatherers).
In the 15th and 16th centuries, so great was the Treasury’s need for funds that the number of import and export duties proliferated. There were not enough royal officials to collect all of them and the tax-farming system was used extensively. The economic benefit of customs duties as a means of encouraging trade and protecting national production started to be better understood.
Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), Controller-General of Finance under Louis XIV, is considered to be the father of modern customs. The development of the merchant navy was encouraged and national productions protected. The economic role of customs duties was confirmed with the 1664 customs tariff which instituted a moderate form of protectionism. This was the first time that France had a national tariff at its borders, and by the end of the following century it was to apply to more than two-fifths of goods. Lastly, two great Ordinances in 1681 and 1687 laid down the basis for modern customs legislation.
In principle, Colbert’s economic doctrine continued to prevail until the end of the Old Regime. However, the rigidity of the protectionist policy had to be softened because of foreign reprisals. The abolition of internal barriers, the transfer of the customs offices known as “bureaux des traites” to the frontiers of the kingdom and the drafting of the single customs tariff were all aims that Trudaine, Necker and Calonne tried to achieve. However, so strong was the resistence from the people with vested interests in the system, their efforts did not succeed.