Harvard’s Black Market

Hillary W. Berkowitz

In the weeks leading up to Commencement, the surface serenity of Harvard’s underpopulated campus hid a fearsome black market. This prohibited trade—sometimes thinly disguised but often overt—made up a substantial portion of the traffic on house and open lists. Though in past years the University administration has threatened to Ad Board any students caught engaging in this prohibited activity, students continue out of desperation for this highly sought-after commodity.

What is the illicit good that seniors are willing to subvert University rules to obtain? Tickets to this morning’s Commencement exercises, at which the degrees for thousands of students will be conferred. Each graduating senior is given four tickets to distribute among her parents, extended family, and guests. Any student who would like to bring more than four people to these ceremonies is forced either to rely on the generosity of friends or strangers willing to give extra tickets away, or to offer money for a ticket, breaking University rules. With today’s increasingly complex and growing families, one can easily understand why the tickets are in such high demand.

Harvard’s policy of forbidding the sale of these tickets is not as easy to understand. If giving tickets away is permitted and even encouraged, what is it about selling tickets that makes it a harmful activity? Both parties to the sale necessarily benefit or the trade would not happen, and no third parties are directly harmed, so it seems that such sales are entirely beneficial.

Allowing the open sale of tickets would have many benefits. Since it would likely increase the supply of tickets more than the demand—because people who need extra tickets are often more willing to break the rules than those who have extra tickets—the price would likely be lower than the current black market price. Permitting the market would also decrease the number of people being ripped off. On house open lists, tickets often sell at prices ranging from $50 to $100, but it is likely that students often pay more than that, since the secretive nature of the market means that many students do not know what kind of price they need to offer. An open market would ensure that tickets are sold at approximately the same reasonable price no matter where on campus the sale takes place.

One might argue that if selling tickets were permitted, then the number of tickets given away would decrease. This is probably true, but it is also true of almost any other commodity. Prohibiting the sale of refrigerators or couches would surely increase the number donated, but no one would argue that we should do that, since it would also make it incredibly difficult to get one of those items. Similarly, we should not force students to rely on luck and quick responses to emails to be able to acquire a ticket.

Someone might argue that poorer students would be put at a disadvantage in obtaining these tickets. But as mentioned above, the price of tickets would probably be substantially lower than they are currently selling for on the black market. Furthermore, since any student could choose not to buy or sell any Commencement tickets, they would all be guaranteed at least four commencement tickets anyway, just like the status quo.

Are there security reasons not to allow the sale of tickets? Selling tickets between students only means that one student’s friend or family member attends instead of another’s, which hardly raises any security concerns. If the University is concerned about non-students buying tickets, then it should be in favor of allowing ticket sales between students, which would keep them from having to sell extra tickets on venues such as Craigslist, as many now do.

If it is already fairly easy to buy and sell tickets, why even bother eliminating the rule? Although it is rarely enforced, the rule has a chilling effect on trade in tickets, since those who care about following the rules are deterred from selling or buying them. Even those who do buy or sell tickets on open lists often refrain from listing prices, which leads many to get ripped off. Furthermore, under the current system, those who break the rules are rewarded. Allowing the sale of tickets would ensure a fair and open market in something that is crucially important to students and their families.

Daniel P. Robinson ’10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.