Today's selection -- from Salt by Mark Kurlansky. Until very recently, salt was one of civilization's rarest and most precious commodities. Wars were fought to gain access to salt mines, it was sometimes used as money, and states often formed salt monopolies as the underpinning of their economies. This first occurred with the Emperor Qin of China in the third century BC, and with it began the perennial debate regarding the role of the state versus the private sector:
"[In the third century BC, China's emperor Qin was advised by his ministers to] fix the price of salt at a higher level than the purchase price so that the state could import the salt and sell it at a profit. 'We can thus take revenues from what other states produce.' The adviser goes on to point out that in some non-salt-producing areas people are ill from the lack of it and in their desperation would be willing to pay still higher prices. The conclusion of the [ancient Chinese philosophical text the] Guanzi is that 'salt has the singularly important power to maintain the basic economy of our state.'
"By 221 B.C., Qin defeated its last rivals, and its ruler became the first emperor of united China./.../