Abolition of import duties on foreign cars will not increase congestion because there is substitution effect
July 24th, 2012 by Hafiz Noor Shams
I advocate the abolition, or at least a significant reduction of import duties (and other excessive taxes) on cars as well as the abolition of the approved permits system that blow up the prices of foreign-manufactured cars to an outrageous level. This should come at no surprise because I am a libertarian. I do generally support freer trade. Make no mistake, the policy on cars is a protectionist policy.
There is a concern that if duties on imported cars are slashed down significantly or abolished entirely, this will exacerbate traffic congestion in Malaysian cities. At first, this sounds like a very big and legitimate concern. It is not.
If one understands that the duties are imposed on foreign marques and that there is such a thing as substitution effect, one will understand that the concern on worsening traffic congestion is misplaced. I suspect it is almost always raised by those without enough formal education in microeconomics.
Do understand that imposition of high duties are on foreign cars. This is the nuance. Too many talk as if it is applied across the board, including on Proton and Perodua marques. The peril of generalization is that you lose the nuance.
The duties make domestically-produced cars cheaper than foreign cars and this should be a no-brainer.
It is no coincident that a majority of cars on Malaysian roads are Protons and Peroduas. Malaysians buy Protons and Peroduas because those cars are cheap. There are not too many of those who can buy more expensive cars. If I recall correctly, the number of Protons and Peroduas and other locally-produced cars dwarf the number of foreign-manufactured cars in this country. I do not have the statistics at home but I do have it at the office. I will share it tomorrow and correct my assertion if it is proven to be incorrect.
If foreign cars are suddenly competitively priced after the abolition of various pre-exisiting duties imposed, new buyers will be tempted to purchase those foreign cars, which are many ways of higher quality than Proton at least. Perodua probably can stand up within its market niche.
Now, if the duties persist, these new purchasers would probably buy Protons and Peroduas.
Notice that there will be purchases of car anyway.
To put it in clearer terms, if the status quo remains, people will buy local cars. If it does not much to the benefits of Malaysian consumers, they will buy higher quality foreign cars. For those whom would have bought foreign cars anyway, it does not matter as far as traffic congestion is concerned. They would still buy their cars. It is not about discriminated duties that Malaysia has that I along with others like-minded persons want abolished.
So, the concern for traffic will exist as long as Malaysians purchase cars and it really does not matter whether the duties are abolished. The trend for greater quantity of cars on the road is really a secular one. It has to do with affluence growth and population growth more than anything, and the availability of a reliable public transport system within this context.
Those who argue that the traffic condition will worsen if those duties are removed just do not understand that those cars are substitute goods.
This does not mean the abolition of import duties do not matter. It matters in terms of welfare. It matters in terms of competition. It matters in a lot of other more important ways. But not in terms of congestion.