Ticket scalping is a market function, not a criminal activity

From December 2009.

At the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, some concerts are very popular, which leads to people frustrated at two things: the inability to buy tickets when they go on sale, and then the high prices that ticket scalpers ask for tickets on the aftermarket.

I understand the frustration of the stymied ticket buyers. Who wants to pay $300 for a ticket that was sold by the arena’s box office for $50? It would be great if everyone who wanted to attend could do so for $50 — or for $5, for that matter. And that gets to the heart of the problem and why it isn’t likely to be solved: human behavior and economics.

Walter Block has a chapter in his book Defending the Undefendable that defends the ticket scalper. (The book in pdf form is here.)

As it turns out, scalping is a beneficial economic activity. But even if you don’t believe this, scalping could be avoided if venues like the arena would sell tickets in a different manner.

According to Block, scalping requires “a fixed, invariable supply of tickets.” After all , if the supply of tickets was unlimited, everyone could buy all they wanted at list price (the price printed on the ticket, and what the venue sells them for).

Also, scalping requires “the ticket price chosen by management be lower than the ‘market clearing price.'” Markets clear when people want to buy the same number of tickets that are for sale. This balance is achieved by allowing the price of the tickets to freely adjust. When the list price of the ticket is less than what some people are willing to pay, that’s when scalpers have an opportunity to earn profits.

This points to one way that scalping could be eliminated, if concert promoters wanted to: They could sell tickets like shares of stock or bushels of wheat are sold. These items don’t have a list price. Instead, their price is whatever people are willing to pay.

Why would concert promoters price tickets at less than some people are willing to pay? If a scalper can get say, $300 for a ticket that the box office sells for $50, why doesn’t the box office price the ticket at $300? Or maybe $200? Here’s what Block writes:

For one thing, lower prices invite a large audience. Long lines of people waiting to enter a theater or ballpark constitutes free publicity. In other words, management forgoes higher prices in order to save money it might have had to spend on advertising. In addition, managers are loath to raise ticket prices — even though they would have little difficulty selling them for a big event or special movie — for fear of a backlash. Many people feel that there is a “fair” price for a movie ticket, and managers are responsive to this feeling.

There are several other motivations, less compelling, for keeping prices fixed at below equilibrium levels. Taken together they ensure that this pricing policy — the third condition necessary for scalping — will continue.

In other words, better for scalpers to bear the brunt of public ire for setting market-clearing prices. Can you imagine the public backlash at the Intrust Bank Arena and Sedgwick County if ticket prices for very popular concerts were set at market-clearing prices?

The chapter goes on to explain the two ways that scarce goods — concert tickets in this care — are rationed: price rationing, and non-price rationing. Price rationing, as you might imagine, relies on the price mechanism to determine a market-clearing price so that supply equals demand.

Non-price rationing, on the other hand, relies on something else. Block mentions “first-come, first served” (camping out the night before at the box office window) and favoritism (those connected to or favored in some way by arena management get special privileges) as two methods of non-price rationing. The Intrust Bank Arena has used another method — a lottery — for some concerts.

So which is “fair?” Does price rationing favor those with the ability to pay high prices? Certainly scalping makes it easier for rich people to obtain scarce tickets. But Block says that scalping provides entrepreneurial opportunities. Someone with a small amount of capital (just enough to buy one or more tickets) but a lot of spare time (someone without a job) can camp out in line and earn profits by selling the tickets. Or, they could simply wait in line and be paid a wage.

By the way, scalpers are not guaranteed profits. If there is not much demand for tickets for an event, scalpers will have to sell the tickets at a loss — or they may not be able to sell them at any price.

Back to Wichita: According to a Wichita Eagle article, a group named Taxpayers for Tickets has been formed to take action against scalping. Reading the website, it seems that the group’s focus is on more laws and enforcement of them to effect the goal of getting tickets in the hands of the taxpayers who paid for the construction of the Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t favor this approach. First, as we’ve seen, scalping is a socially beneficial activity that provides market-clearing prices for tickets.

Second, there is plenty of actual crime in our community that causes death, injury, and loss of property. We don’t need to squander law enforcement resources on victimless crimes like people willingly and voluntarily engaging in market transactions.

In a letter published in the Wichita Eagle, Todd Allen, head of Taxpayers for Tickets, wrote “I figured that since the taxpayers paid for the arena, that makes us the owners.” I hate to disappoint Mr. Allen, but that’s far from the case. Try requesting a contract, as in Sedgwick County keeps lease agreement secret. Not even Sedgwick County Commissioners are able to see the lease of the arena’s flagship tenant.

Another article on ticket scalping is Ticket Scalpers Are Hidden Heroes.