RQ | Using illegal markets as price discovery mechanism

One of the pet projects of my former MLA (former because I moved residence, not because he was voted out) is to set up a formal mechanism for regulating street vendors. He wants to introduce some kind of a medallion for street vendors so that they have legal sanction, and at the same time subject them to health and food safety checks. Considering this is a fairly common practice abroad, and even in some parts of India (like Goa), it is high time something like this is introduced.

Food cart in Miramar, Goa. Notice the bottom portion – it has a license number

The question, however, is how we will price these “medallions”. Price them too high and existing vendors will not want to get into the new regime, and will remain outside regulatory bounds. Price them too low and it can result in missed opportunities and rent seeking (the current situation, where the price is zero, can be seen as a degenerate case of too low a price).

One way to do this would be through an auction. However, one thing we need to preserve is continuity – current existing street vendors need to get a chance to enter the legal fold without too much disturbance from their current business. An auction might see them being priced out and then continue to operate in the illegal framework – which is not an optimal solution.

The solution lies in status quo, and in illegal markets. Given that street vendors currently operate without a license, they are essentially illegal. The way they manage to keep their carts and not get arrested is by paying off a set of public (and private) officials. Perhaps there is the cop who seeks his weekly rent (hafta). Perhaps a municipal officer seeks the same. Maybe a local thug, too.

If you think about this, the sum total of all these payments is essentially the “license fee” that the vendor pays in order to do his business currently. Can we take this as a proxy for the appropriate license fee in a particular location? Can we do an anonymised survey among street vendors (after having classified them into different “areas”) in order to determine the clearing price?

The basic idea is that illegal markets (like that of the “hafta” for being a street vendor) are markets, too, and their price discovery mechanism is as legitimate as those of more legitimate markets. Thus, the price discovered by these illegal markets are a great starting point for regulated pricing!

There is one thing to examine, though – if we price the license at the same “fee” that the vendors are currently paying different rent seekers, will the rent seekers still be able to seek rent? My hypothesis is “no”. The reason rent seekers seek rent is because in its absence there is a “surplus” that the vendors generate which they are willing to share with the rent seekers. If all the rents that are now being collected by illegal rent seekers are subsequently sought by the state, there is no room left for the illegal rent seekers to operate in!

The question is if this framework can be used for eliminating other forms of rent-seeking, too. The answer, sadly, is no. A large number of the rents that are currently being sought are for “public services” which are not supposed to have a fee. I had to get a document from a court recently, and had to pay rents at different points in the chain in order to get it on time. Using this framework, the way to eliminate this would be by increasing the official court fee, but what one must keep in mind is that court services are inelastic – the increase in fee by a few thousand rupees will not deter me from asking for an order. Thus, even if the court fees are increased, nothing prevents the current rent-seekers from continuing to operate.

In other more elastic markets, however, this approach will work, and better be tried.