January 28th, 2007 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Subsidy leads to inefficiency. Notwithstanding the reasoning, sometimes subsidy could be justified; sometimes, efficiency is not the only consideration of a society. The word subsidy is commonly heard when a society tries to address the problem of inequity; subsidy is a tool of wealth redistribution.
I maintain a high dose of skepticism against any subsidy policy. Yet, I am prepared to lower my opposition if such subsidy is well-tailored. A well-tailored subsidy however does not include blanket subsidy; blanket subsidy is the worst form of subsidy one could ever think off. An example of blanket subsidy is the current Malaysian fuel subsidy.
A blanket subsidy is a lazy policy — at best, clumsy — formulated to solve a perceived problem. It generalizes society, assuming that everybody in the society is in need of the subsidy; that people are fully homogeneous. On the contrary, people are heterogeneous to a very large extent. If people were completely homogeneous, I do not doubt that communism would have ruled supreme.
That generalization is costly. The generalization, believing that the lower, the middle and the upper economic class are equally needing of or benefiting from a blanket subsidy is an expensive proposition. It is expensive because it gives benefit to those that value such subsidy the least; the rich values subsidy less than the poor. A blanket subsidy does not make that discretion. Therefore, a blanket subsidy regime pays too much to increase societal welfare whereas in fact, a better policy would have done the same job with lesser resources. One of those better subsidy regimes is a targeted subsidy.
A targeted subsidy policy specifically identifies a segment of a society that is in need of aid and then aids only those that in need of aid.
With a targeted subsidy, resources that would have been used under blanket subsidy could be used to make investment in education or other areas that could permanently and structurally increase societal welfare.
Not only that blanket subsidy as a policy is expensive, somebody has to fund it in order to maintain such policy. Resources ultimately has to be sourced from the society; the taxpayers. The society has to be taxed in order sustain any subsidy. Therefore, to defend a blanket subsidy as a mean to increase societal welfare is almost oxymoronic. The society is being taxed to support a subsidy — you pay me to pay you, all else being equal.
In my opinion, rather than support a subsidized regime as far as the current Malaysian fuel subsidy is concerned, it is better to promote tax reduction instead. Or a hybrid tax reduction-targeted subsidy policy if we are so hooked up on the crack that is subsidy. Rather than you pay me to pay you, why don’t you just keep your money for yourself?