Food profiteering was as active in plague-stricken Milan 300 years ago as in modern times. Shops were stormed for food. Read how the Council strove heroically to fix fair rates.And in the actual reading (from Manzoni's "I Promessi Sposi"), we read how it wasn't heroic at all, but a terrible policy that was a disaster:
The multitude had tried to procure abundance by pillage and incendiarism; the legal arm would have maintained it with the galleys and the scourge...It is easy, too, to see, and not useless to observe, the necessary connection between these stranger measures; each was an inevitable consequence of the antecedent one; and all of the first, which fixed a price upon bread so different to that which would have resulted from the real state of things. ... In proportion, then, as the consequences begin to be felt, it is necessary that they whose duty it is should provide a remedy for each, by a regulation, prohibiting men to do what they were impelled to do by the preceding one...[T]he disproportion between food and the demand for it, (which far from being removed, was even increased, by the remedies which temporarily suspended its effects)The free-marketers reading this will smile -- see what happens when government gets mixed up in the magic of the market? But Tories like myself would urge them to look a little deeper; the government only got mixed up because a mob formed; the key is to promote wise policies that prevent mobs in the first place -- and laissez-faire often seems to cause the mobs to form. (Although we in the TV business are doing our best to keep them at home and away from the meetings!)
There is also something in here that will satisfy the non-conservative. In the tale of a heroic priest, Manzoni also draws a little object lesson in favor of the permanent welfare state:
But these fruits of charity, which we may certainly specify as wonderful, when we consider that they proceeded from one individual, and from his sole resources, (for Federigo habitually refused to be made a dispenser of the liberality of others), these, together with the bounty of other private persons, if not so copious, at least more numerous, and the subsidies granted by the Council of the Decurioni to meet this emergency, the dispensation of which was committed to the Board of Provision, were, after all, in comparison of the demand, scarce and inadequate.However, Manzoni notes that by then people were too hungry to be a mob, and the passage ends with a little meditation that seems appropriate when we contemplate the monstrous totalitarian evils of the 20th century:
It is worthy of remark, that in such an extremity of want, in such a variety of complaints, not one attempt was ever made, not one rumour ever raised, to bring about an insurrection: at least, we find not the least mention of such a thing. Yet, among those who lived and died in this way, there was a great number of men brought up to anything rather than patient endurance; there were, indeed, in hundreds, those very same individuals who, on St. Martin’s-day [when there had been bread riots -- ed.], had made themselves so sensibly felt...But so constituted are we mortals in general, that we rebel indignantly and violently against medium evils, and bow in silence under extreme ones; we bear, not with resignation, but stupefaction, the weight of what at first we had called insupportable.Yucky but true. Or, in the words of one of my favorite Onion headlines, "Americans Shrug, Line Up For Fingerprinting."