Rationing And The Black Market

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Pablo Edronkin

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Rationing is a technique used to distribute food and goods for survival needs when normal distribution chains are broken; rationing cards are a classic of urban survival scenarios, as well as authoritarian and inept regimes.

In times of war or catastrophe, when normal commercial channels are often disrupted significantly or it is required to reassign production resources toward very focused efforts like maintaining troops in the battlefield, local governments and authorities usually use rationing to limit the amount of food and other essential goods so that every person among the population gets what is needed, not more, and if possible, not less. Under such - often understandable circumstances - authorities try to fight speculation using different control systems from which rationing cards stands as the most common.

Rationing is used for survival under very different and varied scenarios: It is even possible to ration water albeit this measure is not advisable at all. Armies have also rationed ammunition at war, obviously during situations that were not particularly favourable for the units involved. Such is the case of some regiments of the Soviet Army during the early stages of WWII; in these cases, an equal number of bullets was assigned to each soldier, but only one rifle for each two that were assigned to fight in a sort of desperate version of the buddy system used by the U.S. Marines. When one soldier fell, the other took the rifle and the ammo, or the ammo, depending o the case. Such measures are extremely discouraging for troops and commanders usually avoid them at all costs, even more than food rationing.

But more that owing duress to unavoidable disgraces, nations or societies in which rationing becomes normal suffer the consequences of many years of mismanagement: Iran is one of the top crude oil producers in the world, with huge, untapped reserves waiting. However, the country has lost almost its whole refining capability over decades of neglect of lack of investment, mostly because foreign companies have not been keen to invest in the country after the Islamic Revolution. Iran exports crude oil but has to import refined combustibles and drivers can only purchase gasoline and other derivatives by means of rationing cards that provide for insufficient quantities for cab drivers and other professionals. Thus, the lack of investment in the energy sector has led even to a significant decrease in other activities and unemployment among pro drivers. Another example is Cuba, where in very recent times keeping a dozen eggs at your home was considered tantamount to treason and food could only be provided by the state.

When the members of a society understand that they are in trouble because of an external factor and it is not the fault of their leaders what they are going thorough, patriotism and loyalty may give a very long lease of life to the rationing policy. That is what happened in great Britain during WWII. After the King of England was seen by his subjects as sharing the same penuries and rationing limitations as them, and considering that they perceived their struggle as on of survival and that they believed all along that theirs was a just cause for a war, rationing worked without major bad surprises. In Germany, during the same period people entered the war believing for the most part in the ability of Hitler's government to succeed; as war turned against the Germans and people began to doubt, the black market began to increase, and by 1944 it was truly mature inside the Reich's decreasing borders.

The black market is proportional to the discredit of the rationing system; this becomes increasingly more significant as the ostensible emergency that caused the rationing in the first place begins to extend in time. After a few years or even less, people will begin to doubt about the reasons that conducted to the emergency that was used as a reason or excuse to create the rationing system or even if they don't, they might begin to doubt about the capability of their leaders to resolve the situation. This lack of confidence and certainty about the future, along the feeling of unnecessary sacrifices turn people into a different mood, and they begin to lust for goods and services that they can indeed, get on the black market.

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