Black Markets

May 20, 2020–I’ve always held the controversial opinion that no one knows the true extent of our cash economy. All those reports of retail activity, employment, GDP, etc., are based on data of transactions taking place within the official economy. They don’t include handfuls of cash given to itinerant workers, dependents, and “I know a guy” hired to do odd jobs. Admit it–you all know examples of this happening.

Thinking of this because I was idly wondering what would have happened if we had allowed the price of toilet paper to rise with increased demand. Wouldn’t that have made it more available?

Keeping prices artificially low encourages hoarding, thereby removing the supply from the marketplace. You know, capitalism?

Ironically I experienced my first real-world application of unbridled capitalism while living in a socialist society. During the time I was there, Peru was a dictatorship. The government controlled prices and markets. We could only purchase meat at the official market two weeks out of the month. Overall, shelves in “super” mercados were bare or only offered one variety of every product. You could buy rice, and peanuts, and canned juice, for example, but there was only one type of each. Since there was no trade with the United States, of course there were no American goods.

To escape those controls, one could attend the weekly local market. There, natives came to town to sell their goods. There was lots of fresh produce–mangos, olives, piles of potatoes of all color and size (Peru was the Eden of potatoes), meat from the back of a van, and my personal addiction, popcorn.

But still, at either market there were no consumer goods we were accustomed to seeing in the states. However… there was a way to get those goods you didn’t “need,” but wanted.

Welcome to the Black Market.

There, we could find anything–cigars, chocolate, alcohol, toys, electronic goods, recorded music, and all manner of American products (ex-pats loved finding Cheerios). If you were willing to pay the price, someone would get it for you.

I always remembered that lesson in economic systems, because it literally hit you in the gut. And in the reaction to our current situation, I recognize signs of the return of the Black Market.

It’s little things. Haircuts in garages. Deer sausage from the neighborhood hunter. Unlocked back doors at drinking establishments. Vans filled with toilet paper. Bootleg masks. Fresh eggs.

Yes, this crisis has brought out the best in our society. Donations of food, support for local businesses, extra tips for employees still on the job. I would propose that Black Markets are an extension of this concern for fellow citizens. Despite the name, a “black” market could be a farmer’s market, where producers sell their wares directly to consumers.

The point is that throughout history, in any type of society, ultimately the individual will figure out a way to survive. We will circumvent any bureaucratic edict that does not serve the well-being of our family. Some call it greed. Some call it freedom.

A healthy society is a balance between the rights of the individual and the good of society. When that balance tips in either direction, expect a reaction.

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