Feb 7, 2012
Excursions Tuesday: Monopolies, Mercantilism, Illegal Buttons, and Saltpeter Men
In this week’s Excursions, George H. Smith gives us a glance at economic regulations from the past.
During the Renaissance, when King Louis XII asked an adviser what was needed for a successful conquest of Milan, he was told: “Most gracious king, three things are necessary: money, more money, and still more money.”
It was during the modern era of conquest and absolute monarchy that taxation became a permanent feature of the political landscape. But collecting taxes proved difficult for emerging nation-states, often meeting with violent resistance. Tax revolts were common in Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed, tax revolts were so frequent in France during the seventeenth century that they became, in the words of a distinguished French historian, “almost an institution.”
In France the tax on salt was so unpopular that its name, gabelle, was applied to any unjust or excessive tax. The role of salt in food preservation made it indispensable, but legal salt was available only through licensed retailers who sold small quantities at a time. This imposed severe hardships on those living in remote districts who had to make several long trips just to purchase their quota of salt.