What’s wrong with touting?

On the front page of the Sunday Times yesterday, two similar stories: The paper has exposed a ‘mass black market’ in Olympic ticket sales, and reports a ‘crackdown’ on fishing quota sales. Haven’t we got it upside down on both issues?

I’ve never really understood the problem with ticket touting (or scalping). Why can’t tickets be treated like any other piece of property and traded at the owner’s discretion? The authorities go to extraordinary lengths to clamp down in this most natural of commercial freedoms, usually without much success, as the Sunday Times story demonstrates.

As with all attempts to rig the market, banning touting introduces all sorts of problems as criminals muscle in on the illegal profits. Buy from a shifty tout outside the ground and you can never be entirely sure that your ticket will be the genuine article.

With their limited and inflexible capacity, sports grounds can obviously not meet demand by increasing supply for some events. So in a free market, prices will go up, sometimes astronomically. So you can see that organisers might artificially depress some ticket prices to ensure that the deserving poor (or in this case deserving semi-corrupt Olympic officials) get hold of them. But then why restrict resale? The important thing, from an access point of view, is to make sure the deserving have the opportunity of attending the event. Whether they then do so is surely down to them.

An analogy is the privatisations of the 80’s and 90’s. The government wanted to make sure all citizens had an equal chance of obtaining shares at a reasonable cost, and so artificially depressed the share issuance price. But then it was happy for these people to sell them on at the higher market price. Good for them! It should be the same for ticket holders, who can therefore derive maximum benefit from the ticket in a way that suits them.

Similarly, what’s wrong with trading fishing quotas? The whole point of a quota system in sea fishing is to introduce commercial incentives towards husbandry of the sea. If you own a quota you have a stake in sustainable fish stocks. In other words, live fish in the sea have value to fishermen, whereas in the previous free-for-all only dead fish on the deck did, with disastrous results in terms of overfishing.

Once you have a quota system, selling them is perfectly natural and beneficial. It encourages industry concentration and efficiency (both badly needed in the British fleet) and also provides an incentive for fishermen towards the end of their career to preserve stocks (because they can sell or lease the quota once they have retired).

The Sunday Times article suggests such trading makes it harder to keep up with the total value of quotas (and therefore to regulate the total allowable catch), but this is surely a technical problem of registration rather than anything wrong with trading per se.

It’s amazing how ready people are to vilify ‘trade’ at the slightest opportunity, given how universally beneficial the process is. Snobbery or just control-freakery?

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One Response to What’s wrong with touting?

  1. willie crawford says:

    well the hysteria that ticket touting arouses has always been a complete mystery to me. why should tickets to sporting events be any different to any other goods? supply and demand control prices and if you cant or wont afford the price, why should you expect to enjoy the product. in our capitalist economy the operation of a secondary market is both natural and legal.

    touts are entitled to their profit – if they get the price wrong they will end off with nothing to show for their investment as the goods are tim-sensitive. I believe that the printed part of a ticket that says “not transferrable” amounts to an unfair contract.

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