Protectionism: An Indirect Subsidy from Consumers to Producers

When a government legislates policies to reduce or block international trade it is engaging in protectionism. Protectionist policies often seek to shield domestic producers and domestic workers from foreign competition. Protectionism takes three main forms: tariffs, import quotas, and nontariff barriers.

Recall from International Trade that tariffs are taxes that governments impose on imported goods and services. This makes imports more expensive for consumers, discouraging imports. For example, in recent years large, flat-screen televisions imported to the U.S. from China have faced a 5% tariff rate.

Another way to control trade is through import quotas, which are numerical limitations on the quantity of products that a country can import. For instance, during the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration imposed a quota on the import of Japanese automobiles. In the 1970s, many developed countries, including the United States, found themselves with declining textile industries. Textile production does not require highly skilled workers, so producers were able to set up lower-cost factories in developing countries. In order to “manage” this loss of jobs and income, the developed countries established an international Multifiber Agreement that essentially divided the market for textile exports between importers and the remaining domestic producers. The agreement, which ran from 1974 to 2004, specified the exact quota of textile imports that each developed country would accept from each low-income country. A similar story exists for sugar imports into the United States, which are still governed by quotas.

Nontariff barriers are all the other ways that a nation can draw up rules, regulations, inspections, and paperwork to make it more costly or difficult to import products. A rule requiring certain safety standards can limit imports just as effectively as high tariffs or low import quotas, for instance. There are also nontariff barriers in the form of “rules-of-origin” regulations; these rules describe the “Made in Country X” label as the one in which the last substantial change in the product took place. A manufacturer wishing to evade import restrictions may try to change the production process so that the last big change in the product happens in his or her own country. For example, certain textiles are made in the United States, shipped to other countries, combined with textiles made in those other countries to make apparel—and then re-exported back to the United States for a final assembly, to escape paying tariffs or to obtain a “Made in the USA” label.

Despite import quotas, tariffs, and nontariff barriers, the share of apparel sold in the United States that is imported rose from about half in 1999 to about three-quarters today. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), estimated the number of U.S. jobs in textiles and apparel fell from 666,360 in 2007 to 385,240 in 2012, a 42% decline. Even more U.S. textile industry jobs would have been lost without tariffs. However, domestic jobs that are saved by import quotas come at a cost. Because textile and apparel protectionism adds to the costs of imports, consumers end up paying billions of dollars more for clothing each year.

When the United States eliminates trade barriers in one area, consumers spend the money they save on that product elsewhere in the economy. Thus, while eliminating trade barriers in one sector of the economy will likely result in some job loss in that sector, consumers will spend the resulting savings in other sectors of the economy and hence increase the number of jobs in those other sectors. Of course, workers in some of the poorest countries of the world who would otherwise have jobs producing textiles, would gain considerably if the United States reduced its barriers to trade in textiles. That said, there are good reasons to be wary about reducing barriers to trade. The 2012 and 2013 Bangladeshi fires in textile factories, which resulted in a horrific loss of life, present complications that our simplified analysis in the chapter will not capture.

Realizing the compromises between nations that come about due to trade policy, many countries came together in 1947 to form the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (We’ll cover the GATT in more detail later in the chapter.) This agreement has since been superseded by the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose membership includes about 150 nations and most of the world's economies. It is the primary international mechanism through which nations negotiate their trade rules—including rules about tariffs, quotas, and nontariff barriers. The next section examines the results of such protectionism and develops a simple model to show the impact of trade policy.

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