Does Legalization Reduce Black Market Activity? Evidence from A Global Ivory Experiment and Elephant Poaching Data

Black markets are estimated to represent a fifth of global economic activity, but their response to policy is poorly understood because participants systematically hide their actions. It is widely hypothesized that relaxing trade bans in illegal goods allows legal supplies to competitively displace illegal supplies, but a richer economic theory provides more ambiguous predictions. Here we evaluate the first major global legalization experiment in an internationally banned market, where a monitoring system established before the experiment enables us to observe the behavior of illegal suppliers before and after. International trade of ivory was banned in 1989, with global elephant poaching data collected by field researchers since 2003. A one-time legal sale of ivory stocks in 2008 was designed as an experiment, but its global impact has not been evaluated. We find that international announcement of the legal ivory sale corresponds with an abrupt ~66% increase in illegal ivory production across two continents, and a possible ten-fold increase in its trend. An estimated ~71% increase in ivory smuggling out of Africa corroborates this finding, while corresponding patterns are absent from natural mortality and alternative explanatory variables. These data suggest the widely documented recent increase in elephant poaching likely originated with the legal sale. More generally, these results suggest that changes to producer costs and/or consumer demand induced by legal sales can have larger effects than displacement of illegal production in some global black markets, implying that partial legalization of banned goods does not necessarily reduce black market activity.

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Chinese “aid” is a lightning rod for criticism. Policy-makers, journalists, and public intellectuals claim that Beijing uses its largesse to cement alliances with political leaders, secure access to natural resources, and create exclusive commercial opportunities for Chinese firms—all at the expense of citizens living in developing countries. We argue that much of the controversy about Chinese “aid” stems from a failure to distinguish between China's Official Development Assistance (ODA) and more commercially oriented sources and types of state financing. Using a new database on China's official financing commitments to Africa from 2000 to 2013, we find that the allocation of Chinese ODA is driven primarily by foreign policy considerations, while economic interests better explain the distribution of less concessional flows. These results highlight the need for better measures of an increasingly diverse set of non-Western financial activities.

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