My wife and I recently spent the night at a wonderful B&B, The South Court Inn, in Luray, Virginia. At breakfast the next morning, our hostess pointed out the decorative salt cellars placed at each setting. She explained that in Victorian times, salt was a luxury commodity and such salt cellars were indicative of the host’s wealth and status.
I am reminded yet again how people miss the point when they argue that free trade and technology benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Salt is the perfect example. The rich always had salt. It was, in fact, a symbol of their wealth. In contrast, the poor were left without. Now, through technology and trade, salt is cheap and ubiquitous, available to rich and poor alike.
Milton Friedman put it more elegantly:
Industrial progress, mechanical improvement, all of the great wonders of the modern era have meant relatively little to the wealthy.
The rich in Ancient Greece would have benefited hardly at all from modern plumbing: running servants replaced running water. Television and radio? The Patricians of Rome could enjoy the leading musicians and actors in their home, could have the leading actors as domestic retainers. Ready-to-wear clothing, supermarkets—all these and many other modern developments would have added little to their life.
The great achievements of Western Capitalism have redounded primarily to the benefit of the ordinary person. These achievements have made available to the masses conveniences and amenities that were previously the exclusive prerogative of the rich and powerful.
BUT when learning, by the invention of printing and the progress of religious reformation, began to be universally disseminated; when trade and navigation were suddenly carried to an amazing extent, by the use of the compass and the consequent discovery of the Indies; the minds of men, thus enlightened by science and enlarged by observation and travel, began to entertain a more just opinion of the dignity and rights of mankind. An inundation of wealth flowed in upon the merchants, and middling rank; while the two great estates of the kingdom, which formerly had balanced the prerogative, the nobility and clergy, were greatly impoverished and weakened. (Book IV, p. 428)