Louis XIV Lives On

When calico printed cloth was introduced to Europe, the French government banned it. They employed gestapo-style tactics to stamp out the new innovation. Here’s Murray Rothbard’s summary of the fiasco, from his excellent An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (vol. 1, p. 219):

The new cloth, printed calicoes, began to be imported from India in the 1660s, and became highly popular, useful for an inexpensive mass market, as well as for high fashion. As a result, calico printing was launched in France. By the 1680s, the indignant woollen, cloth, silk and linen industries all complained to the state of ‘unfair competition’ by the highly popular upstart. The printed colours were readily outcompeting the older cloths. And so the French state responded in 1686 by total prohibition of printed calicoes: their import or their domestic production. In 1700, the French government went all the way: an absolute ban on every aspect of calicoes including their use in consumption. Government spies had a hysterical field day: ‘peering into coaches and private houses and reporting that the governess of the Marquis de Cormoy had been seen at her window clothed in calico of a white background with big red flowers, almost new, or that the wife of a lemonade-seller had been seen in her shop in a casquin of calico’. Literally thousands of Frenchmen died in the calico struggles, either being executed for wearing calicoes or in armed raids against calico-users.

The recent government crackdowns on Lyft, Uber, and other unlicensed taxi services show just how far we’ve come since the days of Louis XIV. For one thing, the US government is not outright murdering the people who hire better, cheaper transportation services. It’s still preventing them from doing so, but it’s not murdering them.

Also, the enforcement is now directed exclusively at sellers and almost never at buyers (drugs are an exception). This allows government authorities to tightly control people’s lives while maintaining the illusion that they are free. Imagine a law that said that people who have too much sodium in their diets can be fined or thrown in jail. Now imagine a law prohibiting businesses from putting more than a certain amount of sodium into their products. The effects of these laws would be nearly identical, but the latter would be far more acceptable to the general public, since it could be justified as protecting innocent consumers from unscrupulous, mustache-twirling businessmen. Transactions require both buyers and sellers, and most of the things we do require transactions, so most aspects of life can be controlled by regulating sellers.