Q&A: Black Markets

What do people actually buy on the black market? Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free. Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from). Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption. Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable. Aside from guns, what do people actually buy if they aren’t silly?

The simple answer to the first question is: products and services where the demand is not satisfied by the legal markets.

The conventional products you’d expect to see here are weapons and drugs, though depending on the economy supporting that black market you could also see more essential items like medical supplies, fuel, or even food.

The easiest way to calculate this is to look at the open market value for a product, slap on the markup for going through the black market (this will modify based on how difficult or expensive it is to obtain, and how dangerous it is to be caught with it), adjust up a bit more based on perceived risk of using the black market (and, yes, this a subjective modifier), and then ask, “is the product available for less than that on the open market?” If the answer is, “no,” then the black market wins out.

Let’s focus on medicine for a second. Under normal circumstances, medicine is a fairly well regulated industry. It’s also one where the consumer has no choice whether to participate or not. There is a strong governmental interest in imposing quality control. The consumer doesn’t chose to need medicine, and when they do, they’ll be under duress. This need can be easily exploited by the unscrupulous. “Go into horrific debt or die.” At that point, a black market option starts to look a lot more viable. The downside is that all of the normal quality control you’d expect to see isn’t there, this isn’t the same stuff you’d be getting through legitimate channels, it’s the bathtub brewed equivalent. In some cases, it may not even be the same medication, it’s something just close enough.

So, the classics are weapons and drugs. There’s always a market for weapons, and you’ll always see advantages for bypassing legal channels. Drugs vary, but, if they’re illegal, that’s black market. Essentials like food and medicine only hit the black market when they’re not readily available.

Luxury items that are otherwise unobtainable also end up on the black market. Usually this is because the luxury items cannot be imported or possessed legally. This is most common in oppressive or isolationist regimes. While this might sound sexy, more likely it will be mundane objects to anyone living outside of that space. We’re talking about things like posters, music, movies, and other pop culture paraphernalia which isn’t legally available.

If you live in the US, an excellent example of a black market luxury item is the Kinder egg. These are small egg shaped chocolates which include a capsule with a toy inside. They’re illegal in the the US, as the design runs afoul FDA regulations, so you cannot legally bring them into the country, or (somewhat obviously) sell them. There is, in fact, a significant black market for them, both as candies and among collectors (for the toys inside.)

Finally, and this is really important, there is no unified, “Black Market.” There’s many small black markets for a number of different products. A drug dealer is a black marketeer, that does not also make him an arms dealer, nor does it mean they’re going to have a supply of Kinder Eggs to sell.

Okay, let’s revisit some other parts of this:

Some of the things they supposedly buy (hair, sperm) seem odd or are things you can easily get for free.

Citation needed. Actually, strike that, I don’t want citation on this. I’ve never heard of black market sperm. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a potential black market for bovine sperm, but human? Yeah, I’m not going to dig into that.

The only market I’m aware of for human hair is high end wigs. Most commonly, you’ll see this quality associated with patients undergoing chemotherapy, though there are a number of other reasons someone would want (or need) a wig. I’m not familiar with much of a black market for this stuff.

Male order brides seem silly because no one is going to believe you got a Russian wife in a day (or wherever they’re from).

The phrase that comes to mind in this case is, “doesn’t matter; had sex.”

“Belief” doesn’t factor into this. It’s not about being able to go to your friends and say, “yeah, see, someone likes me.” It’s about the sex. No one cares why you’re in a relationship, unless it’s clearly unhealthy.

Mail order brides may also be about the domestic duties associated with marriage in a given culture. Ultimately, the mail order bride is the recourse of someone so narcissistic they don’t even want to look at their sexual partner as a person.

Buying babies seems more like pedophilia than adoption.

Ew.

Second, no. This one does track back to the same factors which control a black market. Someone wants to adopt. They may not be able to have children themselves. There may be other factors. They’re also unable to adopt through conventional channels. So, they turn around, and throw money at the problem.

I’m not giving this a pass. There may have been very good reasons they weren’t able to adopt through normal channels. Also, legitimate adoptions do cost money. It’s not a free service, there’s fees and sometimes legal expenses involved.

To immediately jump to human trafficking is a bit extreme.

Organs also seem strange because you don’t know what you’re getting or if they’ll be comparable.

Last I checked, black market organ harvesting was basically an urban legend. Like you said, there wouldn’t be much of a market if the organ isn’t compatible. On top of that, extracting the organ isn’t really something you can do in a hotel room on short order. (At least, not without killing the donor.) Also it’s not like you can just show up at the hospital with a spare kidney and say, “yeah, plug this one in!”

Since I should probably say, non-consensual organ harvesting is possible, it’s just not the kind of thing that works at a black market level. This requires extensive institutional support.

Black Market anon: I had a thought! Are the organs actually for cannibals instead of organ donations? Apologies if this is too weird.

No. What? Why?

-Starke

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