11 February 2013
The Protectionism Effect: Tariffs, Quotas, and Subsidies
The most common way to protect one’s economy from import competition is to implement a tariff: a tax on imports. Generally speaking, a tariff is any tax or fee collected by a government. Sometimes the term “tariff” is used in a nontrade context, as in railroad tariffs. However, the term is much more commonly used to refer to a tax on imported goods. Tariffs have been applied by countries for centuries and have been one of the most common methods used to collect revenue for governments. This is because it is relatively simple to place customs officials at the border of a country and collect a fee on goods that enter. Administratively, a tariff is probably one of the easiest taxes to collect. (Of course, high tariffs may induce smuggling of goods through nontraditional entry points, but we will ignore that problem here.) Tariffs are worth defining early in an international trade course since changes in tariffs represent the primary way in which countries either liberalize trade or protect their economies. It isn’t the only way, though, since countries also implement quotas, subsidies, and other types of regulations that can affect trade flows between countries. These other methods will be defined and discussed later, but for now it suffices to understand tariffs since they still represent the basic policy affecting international trade patterns. When people talk about trade liberalization, they generally mean reducing the tariffs on imported goods, thereby allowing the products to enter at lower cost. Since lowering the cost of trade makes it more profitable, it will make trade freer. A complete elimination of tariffs and other barriers to trade is what economists and others mean by free trade. In contrast, any increase in tariffs is referred to as protection, or protectionism. Because tariffs raise the cost of importing products from abroad but not from domestic firms, they have the effect of protecting the domestic firms that compete with imported products. These domestic firms are called import competitors. There are two basic ways in which tariffs may be levied: specific tariffs and ad valorem tariffs. A specific tariff is levied as a fixed charge per unit of imports. For example, the U.S. government levies a $0.51 specific tariff on every wristwatch imported into the United States. Thus, if one thousand watches are imported, the U.S. government collects $510 in tariff revenue. In this case, $510 is collected whether the watch is a $40 Swatch or a $5,000 Rolex. An ad valorem tariff is levied as a fixed percentage of the value of the commodity imported. “Ad valorem” is Latin for “on value” or “in proportion to the value.” The United States currently levies a 2.5 percent ad valorem tariff on imported automobiles. Thus, if $100,000 worth of automobiles are imported, the U.S. government collects $2,500 in tariff revenue. In this case, $2,500 is collected whether two $50,000 BMWs or ten $10,000 Hyundais are imported. Occasionally, both a specific and an ad valorem tariff are levied on the same product simultaneously. This is known as a two-part tariff. For example, wristwatches imported into the United States face the $0.51 specific tariff as well as a 6.25 percent ad valorem tariff on the case and the strap, and a 5.3 percent ad valorem tariff on the battery. Perhaps this should be called a three-part tariff! As the above examples suggest, different tariffs are generally applied to different commodities. Governments rarely apply the same tariff to all goods and services imported into the country. Several countries prove the exception, though. For example, Chile levies a 6 percent tariff on every imported good, regardless of the category. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates sets a 5 percent tariff on almost all items, while Bolivia levies tariffs either at 0 percent, 2.5 percent, 5 percent, 7.5...