Sampling foods and spices from countries across the globe is something Americans tend to take for granted. When we pick up items like bananas or chocolate or pineapple or fresh-ground peppercorns at the local supermarket, few of us give a second thought about the thousands of miles these treats have travelled to get here—or what factors make this degree of choice possible.
Diversity in the average person’s diet is a modern phenomenon, and exotic foods like those above—expensive to produce and difficult to transport—used to be a privilege of the wealthy. Let’s look at two of them: the pineapple and black pepper.
After Christopher Columbus discovered pineapples in the New World, Europeans began to grow them in specially constructed “pineries.” The fruit produced were delicious but extremely expensive, and to show off their wealth 18th century aristocrats would rent pineapples so they could display them at their parties.
Black pepper is another luxury turned kitchen-table staple. Long sought after for its culinary and perceived medicinal properties, pepper was only grown in large quantities in India—and getting it from there to the rest of the world was an expensive operation. Because peppercorns were both durable and scarce in supply, they were commonly used as currency. Needless to say, only the rich could afford to put their money where their mouth was.
And they all lived happily ever after . . .
Far from being status symbols or units of currency, pineapples and black pepper are now common items most Americans can afford. This happened for two main reasons:
(a) Innovations in agriculture and transportation increased supply
Today, pepper is grown in Brazil, Vietnam, and several other countries in addition to India. Pineapple-growing countries now include the Philippines, Thailand, and other countries outside the Americas.
(b) More international trade leads to more choice for consumers at lower prices
If the countries above were too restrictive of their farmers’ ability to sell their products abroad, or if America was too restrictive of consumers’ ability to purchase them, then we’d be back where we started and only the rich would be able to enjoy foreign goods.
It isn’t just pineapples and black pepper that economic freedom has made more accessible. Thanks to low tariffs, the U.S. imports huge amounts of produce from around the world—in 2007, some 319 fruit products from 121 different countries. This adds up to greater variety for American consumers as well as more affordable prices.
Economic freedom means the ability to choose—whether you want to buy local, eat fruit from any of 121 foreign countries, or start a farm and sell your own produce abroad. Economic freedom has brought flavor to the world and spice to life. We should make sure it stays that way.
A version of this blog originally appeared on EconomicFreedom.org, a project of the Charles Koch Institute. The Institute republished it here on July 31, 2015.