Thursday, April 05, 2012

Is Legally Prohibiting People From Buying Subsidized Fuel a Good Idea?

Although the House of Representatives on Friday rejected a plan to raise the price of premium subsidized fuel, the government can still raise the price in the near future. This may delay another debate on whether we should cut the fuel subsidy. Unfortunately, the current global price has continuously risen, and the price of non-subsidized fuel has significantly increased.

Considering the price discrepancy between the two types of fuel, and assuming that the difference in their quality cannot be easily distinguished, it does not take an economist to conclude that people will likely (if not certainly) purchase the cheaper option. Surely, no rational person would believe that asking people to be ethical by not purchasing the subsidized fuel would work without any legal sanctions.

The question then is this: Would sanctioning those who buy subsidized fuel and can afford the non-subsidized option be a good idea? I believe it would not be wise at all.

First, the consumers of subsidized fuel come primarily from the middle-class. These are people who will have difficulty adjusting their lifestyle with the rising fuel price. Those in the upper class don’t have any problem paying for fuel, and might not consume the subsidized product in the first place.

But penalizing people for buying subsidized fuel might be dangerous — there would be too many targets to cite, and the costs of legal enforcement would be excessive. If people are cheating the rule and buying subsidized fuel, how many legal enforcers should be created, deployed and paid to combat them?

Furthermore, a penalization system might increase social unrest, especially if the government ends up punishing people for something they feel they naturally need. That could potentially be another huge cost to society.

Also, if we impose penalties on those who buy subsidized fuel, why bother maintaining the low price? Imagine the inefficiency of such a system. We spend money maintaining the subsidy, and then we spend more money enforcing the law in order to ensure that only needy people buy cheap fuel. It doesn’t make any sense at all. These are double expenses with unknown benefits.

Another way to induce people to buy non-subsidized fuel is to require insurance companies to cancel or reduce protection for cars that use subsidized fuel. But the problem with this solution is that we need to make sure insurance companies will cooperate, therefore spending additional money to supervise the insurance companies — again spending more money trying to save money.

In addition, if the price discrepancies keep increasing, the above measure will be less effective since people will likely treat the costs of losing insurance as a future probabilistic matter, while the high fuel price is the current problem they face. In short, they will have more incentives to choose facing future risks rather than facing the problem now.

Let us make this difficult situation as easy as possible. The main problem with having different prices of fuel at the same location is that it is almost impossible for us to ensure that only the right targets will benefit from the subsidy. You can not fight human nature to pay as little as possible for goods. And I’m quite certain that politicians, who by their very nature must pander public opinion, would never agree to penalize consumers (who are also voters) from buying subsidized fuel. Increasing the price is one thing, but criminalizing people would be an unacceptable threat to future votes.

This problem would never occur if the government did not create an excessive market distortion in fuel supply. After all, it would be easier for the people to adjust to the change when those changes are gradual. Shock therapy rarely produces a good result, and often comes with huge sacrifices.

I think this is the right time to be realistic. Unless the government can find a quick way to make a lot of money, maintaining the subsidy is a bad idea ­— but criminalizing use would be a recipe for disaster.


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