Friday, August 02, 2013

The conceptual origins of the black market in the moral economy of the 1940s

Among people who study illicit economies and trafficking it's become fashionable to suggest that illicit markets have always been with us, and that they always will be. Peter Andreas, for example, has recently written a very good book on how smuggling has been at the heart of virtually every major episode in the history of the American republic, from the Boston Tea Party to gun-running during the civil war to Prohibition to the War on Terror. Andreas argues, further, that efforts to stem or at least control smuggling have been at the heart of a variety of US state-building exercises, ranging from how the federal government's desire to cut down on excise duty evasion led to the creation of the professional civil service, to how efforts to crack down on the transportation of illicit substances helped provide a critical outlet for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to increase its reach in the 1920s. And at one level, it's certainly true that as long as there have been and continue to be different human communities with different values, there will always be people who attempt to prevent certain kinds of commerce between these communities (call them moralists and governments) and there will be others who will try to make money by arbitraging the price differences these regulations create (call them deviant entrepreneurs).

But before we take that story as too pat, maybe it's worth historicizing this concept of the illicit. One place to start with that might be with the following interesting little ngram, on the rise of the term "black market":

What we can see here is that prior to the late 1930s, the concept of the black market did not exist -- or at least there was no term for it. Deviant entrepreneurship may be a venerable practice -- Prohibition was of course one of the major episodes of US history during the "long 1920s" -- but the concept of a black market is something that appeared relatively late.

Why was this? Some clues can be found by looking at the evolution of the usage of the term. If we go to JSTOR to search for the earliest uses of the term, we discover something quite interesting. The earliest articles using the term address a very specific sort of black market, namely, the black market for currency. The handful of articles that talk about black markets in the 1930s all refer to occasions where deviant entrepreneurs were creating markets to route around fixed exchange rate regimes. The historical context for the rise of these "black" markets (a clue that the idea was a new one is that these early articles all use scare quotes) was the monetary situation of the 1930s: the gold standard had collapsed, but most governments were refusing to allow their currencies to "float."

To simplify: imagine if the dollar and the sterling have an official "pegged" exchange rate of 1:1. Imagine, further, that because of differences in the productivity in the two economies, a dollar can buy two widgets but a pound only one. Given this price disparity for widgets, the relative price of these two currencies should float to 1:2. However, the British government refuses to see the pound decline -- as this will reduce the widget-purchasing power of its people. Such a scenario creates two effects: first, many British sellers of widgets will insist on being paid in dollars, not sterling, creating a shortage in the sterling market for widgets, while others will secret the widgets out of the country in order to sell them for dollars; second, deviant entrepreneurs will emerge who will provide liquidity to exchange dollars for pounds at the true "market" rate, thereby allowing sterling holders to get their hands on the widgets. Such unsanctioned currency markets are what are being referred to in these documents. (For contemporary examples, see Argentina and Egypt.) In sum, these earliest uses of the term "black market" reflect a particular historical moment: the effort of governments to impose capital controls in the wake of the collapse of the gold standard during the Great Depression. For a characteristic early example of this usage of the term "black market," see Paul Einzig, "The Unofficial Market in Sterling," The Economic Journal 49:196 (December 1939).

By the early 1940s, however, a new meaning for the term "black market" begins to emerge. This usage refers to markets that route around government efforts to impose rationing in the context of the Second World War. The earliest example of this usage on JSTOR is by Miriam S. Farley: "Japan Experiments with Rationing," Far Eastern Survey 9:17 (14 August 1940). Farley explains how the Japanese, by then in year three of their war with China, having already imposed rations on gasoline, were now commencing to ration "commodities in general daily use," specifically sugar. (This is interesting because it underscores the extent to which Japan was already suffering from commodity supply issues, a year and half before the American phase of the war in Asia officially began.) The article closes by noting drily that there have been "many abuses of the gasoline rationing system" and that the fear was that this black market (no scare quotes) would spread to the other markets as rationing was extended to these. 

In a sense, this new usage was an extension of the original currency control-related concept. What governments are doing when they impose capital controls, after all, is rationing the currency -- the rationing of other goods was merely an extension of the same logic of government control over the economy's key resources.

As the Ngram above suggests, the concept of the black market soared throughout the war years, as virtually every country imposed rationing quotas on a growing list of commodities, and as unofficial markets arose in parallel to supply the well-to-do with goods that the government deemed should be distributed on a basis other than market purchasing power. This ration-breaking conceptualization of "black markets" reached its apex in the immediate postwar years, as the deprivation conditions in war-ravaged Europe and Asia meant that price controls and quotas were essential for keeping the desperate populations alive. But the very omnipresence of such rationing also created unprecedented opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs to make windfalls by constructing "black market" supply chains that circumvented the quotas. While size estimates of such markets in places like Berlin and Vienna in the the first years after the war are inherently unreliable, they were undoubtedly huge. The black market was the defining feature of the immediate postwar economic landscapes in these locations. Indeed, one of the greatest movies of the twentieth century, "The Third Man" (1949, based on Graham Greene's screenplay), centers on the adventures of Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), who runs a black market in (as it turns out, counterfeit) medicine in the ruins of postwar Vienna. This is how Lime famously justified himself:

As the Ngram above shows, it is just as "The Third Man" was released in the late 1940s that the term "black market" (still understood primarily as a unofficial market designed to route around rationing strictures) began to dip in popularity. Here again historical context explains why. The Marshall Plan began in April 1948, and with it the economies of Western Europe begin to overcome the chronic shortages of goods that had led governments to feel the need to impose rationing (and thus created opportunities for deviant entrepreneurs like Harry Lime). With the end of shortages and rationing, the empirical phenomenon of "black markets" went into decline, and hence chatter about the phenomenon also declined a bit, though the concept, having been invented, never quite went away.

It is only the 1960s that the current modern sense of the term black market begins to arise, that is, as a concept that is primarily focused on goods that are not so much rationed as considered per se sinful (as it were, haram in the Islamic jurisprudence sense). While the older sense of the term black market -- referring to unlicensed markets for goods that are considered otherwise wholesome, such as food, medicine or fuel -- has continues to get used in a limited way, from the 1960s forward the term black market increasingly refers to markets for things that on some fundamental, material level are considered inherently beyond the moral pale: above all narcotics, but also prostitution, killing of endangered species, human trafficking, and so on. Of course, there had long been prohibitions on various sorts of goods in American society (notably on alcohol during capital-P Prohibition) but in the 1920s nobody at the FBI referred to what Al Capone was doing with the term "black market."

Fully exploring the nuanced post-1960 meanings of the term "black market" is beyond the scope of this blog post, but one thing worth underscoring here is the shift in the ethical constitution of black markets. In the 1930s and 1940s, black markets arose because rich people wanted to get around government-imposed regulations designed to enforce communal standards of egalitarian solidarity. Quotas were predicated on the notion that during depression and wartime, all members of the national community were supposed to suffer deprivation together. In other words, if there was a limited supply of sugar or gasoline, then government would dictate that everyone (after the government's own set-aside, naturally) would get the exact same amount of sugar, or if not exactly the same amount, then some amount based on a moral economy of distributive justice. Of course, rich people have never been content with getting the same as what everyone else has of these desirable goods, and there have always been those who were willing to either embezzle the government's share or sell their own share (or act as a broker for either of these) in order to meet the desires of those with money. If the presence of the black markets reveal the limits of such egalitarian-communitarian ideals during the 1940s, we should nonetheless pay a certain respect to the moral principles which the deviant entrepreneurs were attempting to subvert. Black markets, in this sense, are the tribute virtue pays to vice.

By contrast, the moral principles that underpin the laws that are the object of today's black markets are rooted in a very different set of moral principles. Today's black markets are designed to route around moral prohibitions concerning certain types of consumptions. In other words, if the government regulations that led to black markets in the 1930s and 1940s were about ensuring that everyone would have access to certain classes of commodities (medicine, food, fuel), the government regulations that lead to most of today's black markets are about ensuring that no one has access to certain classes of goods and services, be it prostitution or drugs or rhino horns.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there was always a "black market," it just didn't get talked about in books. When middle- and upper-class people began resorting to it, it rose to public mention (and seemed less sinful).