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Defending the Indefensible: Your Thoughts on the Benefits of Fuel Subsidies

(Photo: Tony Martin)

Last post, I wrote about how many nations in the developing world, such as Egypt, subsidize gasoline and diesel fuel to keep the price at the pump artificially low. There are many ways in which this policy is ineffective, counterproductive, and just plain dumb: it wrecks the public finances of cash-strapped countries in order to create traffic congestion and air pollution, raises the world price of oil, and transfers money from the poor to the wealthy.

In fact, writing about this folly got me pretty irritated, and I’m ashamed to admit I decided to take out my frustration on you readers. So I challenged you to come up with arguments in favor of fuel subsidies, manipulatively using the siren’s song of a prize of Freakonomics swag to get you to twist your brains into pretzels.

Thanks to those of you who gamely tried; many of you confessed it wasn’t easy. For example, poor reader Rob complained that “I’m getting a brain cramp trying to think of a defense for Egypt’s policy.” Rob, I apologize and recommend sitting in a dark room while listening to a CD of soothing ocean sounds for awhile.

However, you guys collectively came up with most of the plausible arguments in support of this policy. The most popular point, summarized by reader Dave Witzel, is that:

Of course, in Egypt this strategy doesn’t seem to be working so well. But some of the other nations that have tried to eliminate their fuel subsidies have experienced mass unrest. Consider, for example, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Venezuela (arguably the world’s worst subsidizer, with more than 8 percent of GDP dedicated to keeping gas prices under ten cents a gallon). Some countries that have tried to cut fuel subsidies have had to backtrack because of this.

Why does removing these subsidies bring people into the streets, despite the fact that the benefits of the policy flow disproportionately to the economically well-off? Reader Brendan (and several others) noted that:

And Shane L pointed out that:

Hence, it may make sense to keep fuel subsidies because, regardless of their demerits, people seem to like them. While admitting that “I have been to Egypt and the roads and traffic are the worst I’ve ever seen,” reader fobwngua says:

Reader greenoacean pointed out that fuel price hikes would feed inflation. This is an argument that must be taken seriously; we have seen firsthand in the developed world, in the 1970s, that sudden fuel price spikes can wreck havoc on the economy.

Readers Todd Sullivan, Francisco Arias, and Kayode raised related arguments, maintaining that despite the fact that the poor are unlikely to be driving in most subsidizing countries, fuel price hikes would feed into the goods they consume, like bus transport, housing, and food. In the next post, I will maintain that it would be better to subsidize those things directly, rather than through an indirect and leaky channel like giving away gas, but this raises an issue pointed out by Warren:

This argument is not lost on the public in many subsidizing nations, who are skeptical that if fuel subsidies are lifted the money will instead subsidize villas in Spain or offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. As a couple of readers pointed out, dealing with this perception is particularly important in oil-producing nations, which tend to be the heaviest subsidizers; in these countries, cheap gas is intended to show the populace that they are receiving at least some of the benefits from the nation’s oil wealth (although, ironically, many of these nations, such as Iran and Nigeria, are actually paying retail prices on the world market for the gasoline they are giving away because they lack adequate domestic refining capacity).

There is a related argument here that none of you mentioned; even if governments are not dishonest, administering a fuel subsidy is comparatively simple, while something like making direct welfare payments to legions of poor individuals, or undertaking big infrastructure projects, is not. So even an honest government in the developing world might see fuel subsidies as a reasonably practical, if imperfect, method of channeling money to the poor.

And the winner of the competition? I’ll have to reward reader Jeff, who opined:

This argument is a worthy one, and in my opinion it is one that is understudied in the transportation field, where overwhelmingly the focus is typically on transportation’s external costs (like pollution) and not on its external benefits. Even I have to admit that in this blog I’ve harped far more on transportation’s negative externalities than its positive ones, and I consider myself much better disposed towards travel and mobility than many people in my field.

To make this case, you have to keep in mind here that the external benefits must be kept separate from internal ones. So inventors who get rich thanks to in person meetings should pay for their own travel, but if other firms use their ideas without paying for them, society might have some interest in paying for the inventors’ gas.

Good point, Jeff. Clearly your employment of your famous wit isn’t restricted to the lucky people who sit next to you in bars, and for sharing it you get a free piece of swag. Consider this a subsidy toward paying your internet bill, thus compensating you for the external benefits of your post to the Freakonomics readership.

Thanks to all who posted; you covered most arguments in favor of fuel subsidies I could think of. But overall, despite the intellectual somersaults you were turning, most of you held your noses while defending this policy. Even Jeff, winner of the award for best advocate, started his post with:

*Insert obligatory statement about how gas subsidies are terrible and that I’m just playing devil’s advocate here*

So next post, I’ll address why the problems raised here are overblown, why fuel subsidies are anyway a poor way to address them, and how we could implement subsidy reform without bankrupting the poor or getting the presidential palace burned to the ground.