Protectionism: An Indirect Subsidy from Consumers to Producers

Demand and Supply Analysis of Protectionism

To the non-economist, restricting imports may appear to be nothing more than taking sales from foreign producers and giving them to domestic producers. Other factors are at work, however, because firms do not operate in a vacuum. Instead, firms sell their products either to consumers or to other firms (if they are business suppliers), who are also affected by the trade barriers. A demand and supply analysis of protectionism shows that it is not just a matter of domestic gains and foreign losses, but a policy that imposes substantial domestic costs as well.

Consider two countries, Brazil and the United States, who produce sugar. Each country has a domestic supply and demand for sugar, as Table details and Figure illustrates. In Brazil, without trade, the equilibrium price of sugar is 12 cents per pound and the equilibrium output is 30 tons. When there is no trade in the United States, the equilibrium price of sugar is 24 cents per pound and the equilibrium quantity is 80 tons. We label these equilibrium points as point E in each part of the figure.

This is a two-panel demand and supply graph, with quantity of sugar on the x-axis and price of sugar measured in cents per pound on the y-axis. The price-quantity pairs are plotted using the numbers from Table 34_01. The graph shows three sets of price outcomes in each country: no trade, free trade, and price with partial protectionism. The no-trade price in Brazil is lower than in the United States. Hence, when countries can engage in trade, the free-trade price will rise in Brazil and decrease in the United States.
The Sugar Trade between Brazil and the United States Before trade, the equilibrium price of sugar in Brazil is 12 cents a pound and it is 24 cents per pound in the United States. When trade is allowed, businesses will buy cheap sugar in Brazil and sell it in the United States. This will result in higher prices in Brazil and lower prices in the United States. Ignoring transaction costs, prices should converge to 16 cents per pound, with Brazil exporting 15 tons of sugar and the United States importing 15 tons of sugar. If trade is only partly open between the countries, it will lead to an outcome between the free-trade and no-trade possibilities.
Price Brazil: Quantity Supplied (tons) Brazil: Quantity Demanded (tons) U.S.: Quantity Supplied (tons) U.S.: Quantity Demanded (tons)
8 cents 20 35 60 100
12 cents 30 30 66 93
14 cents 35 28 69 90
16 cents 40 25 72 87
20 cents 45 21 76 83
24 cents 50 18 80 80
28 cents 55 15 82 78
The Sugar Trade between Brazil and the United States

If international trade between Brazil and the United States now becomes possible, profit-seeking firms will spot an opportunity: buy sugar cheaply in Brazil, and sell it at a higher price in the United States. As sugar is shipped from Brazil to the United States, the quantity of sugar produced in Brazil will be greater than Brazilian consumption (with the extra production exported), and the amount produced in the United States will be less than the amount of U.S. consumption (with the extra consumption imported). Exports to the United States will reduce the sugar supply in Brazil, raising its price. Imports into the United States will increase the sugar supply, lowering its price. When the sugar price is the same in both countries, there is no incentive to trade further. As Figure shows, the equilibrium with trade occurs at a price of 16 cents per pound. At that price, the sugar farmers of Brazil supply a quantity of 40 tons, while the consumers of Brazil buy only 25 tons.

The extra 15 tons of sugar production, shown by the horizontal gap between the demand curve and the supply curve in Brazil, is exported to the United States. In the United States, at a price of 16 cents, the farmers produce a quantity of 72 tons and consumers demand a quantity of 87 tons. The excess demand of 15 tons by American consumers, shown by the horizontal gap between demand and domestic supply at the price of 16 cents, is supplied by imported sugar. Free trade typically results in income distribution effects, but the key is to recognize the overall gains from trade, as Figure shows. Building on the concepts that we outlined in Demand and Supply and Demand, Supply, and Efficiency in terms of consumer and producer surplus, Figure (a) shows that producers in Brazil gain by selling more sugar at a higher price, while Figure (b) shows consumers in the United States benefit from the lower price and greater availability of sugar. Consumers in Brazil are worse off (compare their no-trade consumer surplus with the free-trade consumer surplus) and U.S. producers of sugar are worse off. There are gains from trade—an increase in social surplus in each country. That is, both the United States and Brazil are better off than they would be without trade. The following Clear It Up feature explains how trade policy can influence low-income countries.

This figure uses two demand and supply diagrams and your understanding of consumer and producer surplus from the Demand and Supply chapter to show that free trade results in gains from trade and income distribution effects.
Free Trade of Sugar Free trade results in gains from trade. Total surplus increases in both countries, as the two blue-shaded areas show. However, there are clear income distribution effects. Producers gain in the exporting country, while consumers lose; and in the importing country, consumers gain and producers lose.

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Why are there low-income countries?

Why are the poor countries of the world poor? There are a number of reasons, but one of them will surprise you: the trade policies of the high-income countries. Following is a stark review of social priorities which the international aid organization, Oxfam International has widely publicized.

High-income countries of the world—primarily the United States, Canada, countries of the European Union, and Japan—subsidize their domestic farmers collectively by about $360 billion per year. By contrast, the total amount of foreign aid from these same high-income countries to the poor countries of the world is about $70 billion per year, or less than 20% of the farm subsidies. Why does this matter?

It matters because the support of farmers in high-income countries is devastating to the livelihoods of farmers in low-income countries. Even when their climate and land are well-suited to products like cotton, rice, sugar, or milk, farmers in low-income countries find it difficult to compete. Farm subsidies in the high-income countries cause farmers in those countries to increase the amount they produce. This increase in supply drives down world prices of farm products below the costs of production. As Michael Gerson of the Washington Post describes it: “[T]he effects in the cotton-growing regions of West Africa are dramatic . . . keep[ing] millions of Africans on the edge of malnutrition. In some of the poorest countries on Earth, cotton farmers are some of the poorest people, earning about a dollar a day. . . . Who benefits from the current system of subsidies? About 20,000 American cotton producers, with an average annual income of more than $125,000.”

As if subsidies were not enough, often, the high-income countries block agricultural exports from low-income countries. In some cases, the situation gets even worse when the governments of high-income countries, having bought and paid for an excess supply of farm products, give away those products in poor countries and drive local farmers out of business altogether.

For example, shipments of excess milk from the European Union to Jamaica have caused great hardship for Jamaican dairy farmers. Shipments of excess rice from the United States to Haiti drove thousands of low-income rice farmers in Haiti out of business. The opportunity costs of protectionism are not paid just by domestic consumers, but also by foreign producers—and for many agricultural products, those foreign producers are the world’s poor.

Now, let’s look at what happens with protectionism. U.S. sugar farmers are likely to argue that, if only they could be protected from sugar imported from Brazil, the United States would have higher domestic sugar production, more jobs in the sugar industry, and American sugar farmers would receive a higher price. If the United States government sets a high-enough tariff on imported sugar, or sets an import quota at zero, the result will be that the quantity of sugar traded between countries could be reduced to zero, and the prices in each country will return to the levels before trade was allowed.

Blocking only some trade is also possible. Suppose that the United States passed a sugar import quota of seven tons. The United States will import no more than seven tons of sugar, which means that Brazil can export no more than seven tons of sugar to the United States. As a result, the price of sugar in the United States will be 20 cents, which is the price where the quantity demanded is seven tons greater than the domestic quantity supplied. Conversely, if Brazil can export only seven tons of sugar, then the price of sugar in Brazil will be 14 cents per pound, which is the price where the domestic quantity supplied in Brazil is seven tons greater than domestic demand.

In general, when a country sets a low or medium tariff or import quota, the equilibrium price and quantity will be somewhere between those that prevail with no trade and those with completely free trade. The following Work It Out explores the impact of these trade barriers.

Effects of Trade Barriers

Let’s look carefully at the effects of tariffs or quotas. If the U.S. government imposes a tariff or quota sufficient to eliminate trade with Brazil, two things occur: U.S. consumers pay a higher price and therefore buy a smaller quantity of sugar. U.S. producers obtain a higher price and they sell a larger quantity of sugar. We can measure the effects of a tariff on producers and consumers in the United States using two concepts that we developed in Demand, Supply, and Efficiency: consumer surplus and producer surplus.

The graph represents the supply and demand of sugar in the U.S.
U.S. Sugar Supply and Demand When there is free trade, the equilibrium is at point A. When there is no trade, the equilibrium is at point E.

Step 1. Look at Figure, which shows a hypothetical version of the demand and supply of sugar in the United States.

Step 2. Note that when there is free trade the sugar market is in equilibrium at point A where Domestic Quantity Demanded (Qd) = Quantity Supplied (Domestic Qs + Imports from Brazil) at a price of PTrade.

Step 3. Note, also, that imports are equal to the distance between points C and A.

Step 4. Recall that consumer surplus is the value that consumers get beyond what they paid for when they buy a product. Graphically, it is the area under a demand curve but above the price. In this case, the consumer surplus in the United States is the area of the triangle formed by the points PTrade, A, and B.

Step 5. Recall, also, that producer surplus is another name for profit—it is the income producers get above the cost of production, which is shown by the supply curve here. In this case, the producer surplus with trade is the area of the triangle formed by the points Ptrade, C, and D.

Step 6. Suppose that the barriers to trade are imposed, imports are excluded, and the price rises to PNoTrade. Look what happens to producer surplus and consumer surplus. At the higher price, the domestic quantity supplied increases from Qs to Q at point E. Because producers are selling more quantity at a higher price, the producer surplus increases to the area of the triangle PNoTrade, E, and D.

Step 7. Compare the areas of the two triangles and you will see the increase in the producer surplus.

Step 8. Examine the consumer surplus. Consumers are now paying a higher price to get a lower quantity (Q instead of Qd). Their consumer surplus shrinks to the area of the triangle PNoTrade, E, and B.

Step 9. Determine the net effect. The producer surplus increases by the area Ptrade, C, E, PNoTrade. The loss of consumer surplus, however, is larger. It is the area Ptrade, A, E, PNoTrade. In other words, consumers lose more than producers gain as a result of the trade barriers and the United States has a lower social surplus.

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