Protectionism Definition


What Is Protectionism?

Protectionism refers to government policies that restrict international trade to help domestic industries. Protectionist policies are usually implemented with the goal to improve economic activity within a domestic economy but can also be implemented for safety or quality concerns.

Key Takeaways

  • Protectionist policies place specific restrictions on international trade for the benefit of a domestic economy.
  • Protectionist policies typically seek to improve economic activity but may also be the result of safety or quality concerns.
  • The value of protectionism is a subject of debate among economists and policymakers.
  • Tariffs, import quotas, product standards, and subsidies are some of the primary policy tools a government can use in enacting protectionist policies.

Understanding Protectionism

Protectionist policies are typically focused on imports but may also involve other aspects of international trade such as product standards and government subsidies. The merits of protectionism are the subject of fierce debate.

Critics argue that over the long term, protectionism often hurts the people and entities it is intended to protect by slowing economic growth and increasing price inflation, making free trade a better alternative. Proponents of protectionism argue that the policies can help to create domestic jobs, increase gross domestic product (GDP), and make a domestic economy more competitive globally.

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Import tariffs are one of the top tools a government uses when seeking to enact protectionist policies. There are three main import tariff concepts that can be theorized for protective measures. In general, all forms of import tariffs are charged to the importing country and documented at government customs. Import tariffs raise the price of imports for a country.

Scientific tariffs are import tariffs imposed on an item-by-item basis, raising the price of goods for the importer and passing on higher prices to the end buyer. Peril point import tariffs are focused on a specific industry. These tariffs involve the calculation of levels at which import tariff decreases or increases would cause significant harm to an industry overall, potentially leading to the jeopardy of closure due to an inability to compete. Retaliatory tariffs are tariffs enacted primarily as a response to excessive duties being charged by trading partners.

Import Quotas

Import quotas are non-tariff barriers that are put in place to limit the number of products that can be imported over a set period of time. The purpose of quotas is to limit the supply of specified products provided by an exporter to an importer. This is typically a less drastic action that has a marginal effect on prices and leads to higher demand for domestic businesses to cover the shortfall.

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Quotas may also be put in place to prevent dumping, which occurs when foreign producers export products at prices lower than production costs. An embargo, in which the importation of designated products is completely prohibited, is the most severe type of quota.

Product Standards

Product safety and high volumes of low-quality products or materials are typically top concerns when enacting product standards. Product standard protectionism can be a barrier that limits imports based on a country’s internal controls.

Some countries may have lower regulatory standards in the areas of food preparation, intellectual property enforcement, or materials production. This can lead to a product standard requirement or a blockage of certain imports due to regulatory enforcement. Overall, restricting imports through the implementation of product standards can often lead to a higher volume of product production domestically.

For one example, consider French cheeses made with raw instead of pasteurized milk, which must be aged at least 60 days prior to being imported to the U.S. Because the process for producing many French kinds of cheese often involves aging of 50 days or fewer, some of the most popular French cheeses are banned from the U.S., providing an advantage for U.S. producers.

Government Subsidies

Government subsidies can come in various forms. Generally, they may be direct or indirect. Direct subsidies provide businesses with cash payments. Indirect subsidies come in the form of special savings such as interest-free loans and tax breaks. When exploring subsidies, government officials may choose to provide direct or indirect subsidies in the areas of production, employment, tax, property, and more.

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When seeking to boost a country’s balance of trade, a country might also choose to offer subsidies to businesses for exports. Export subsidies provide an incentive for domestic businesses to expand globally by increasing their exports internationally.

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