- Describe the ways in which governments and international bodies promote and regulate global trade.
The debate about the extent to which countries should control the flow of foreign goods and investments across their borders is as old as international trade itself. Governments continue to control trade. To better understand how and why, let’s examine a hypothetical case. Suppose you’re in charge of a small country in which people do two things—grow food and make clothes. Because the quality of both products is high and the prices are reasonable, your consumers are happy to buy locally made food and clothes. But one day, a farmer from a nearby country crosses your border with several wagonloads of wheat to sell. On the same day, a foreign clothes maker arrives with a large shipment of clothes. These two entrepreneurs want to sell food and clothes in your country at prices below those that local consumers now pay for domestically made food and clothes. At first, this seems like a good deal for your consumers: they won’t have to pay as much for food and clothes. But then you remember all the people in your country who grow food and make clothes. If no one buys their goods (because the imported goods are cheaper), what will happen to their livelihoods? Will everybody be out of work? And if everyone’s unemployed, what will happen to your national economy?
That’s when you decide to protect your farmers and clothes makers by setting up trade rules. Maybe you’ll increase the prices of imported goods by adding a tax to them; you might even make the tax so high that they’re more expensive than your homemade goods. Or perhaps you’ll help your farmers grow food more cheaply by giving them financial help to defray their costs. The government payments that you give to the farmers to help offset some of their costs of production are called subsidies. These subsidies will allow the farmers to lower the price of their goods to a point below that of imported competitors’ goods. What’s even better is that the lower costs will allow the farmers to export their own goods at attractive, competitive prices.
The United States has a long history of subsidizing farmers. Subsidy programs guarantee farmers (including large corporate farms) a certain price for their crops, regardless of the market price. This guarantee ensures stable income in the farming community but can have a negative impact on the world economy. How? Critics argue that in allowing American farmers to export crops at artificially low prices, U.S. agricultural subsidies permit them to compete unfairly with farmers in developing countries. A reverse situation occurs in the steel industry, in which a number of countries—China, Japan, Russia, Germany, and Brazil—subsidize domestic producers. U.S. trade unions charge that this practice gives an unfair advantage to foreign producers and hurts the American steel industry, which can’t compete on price with subsidized imports.
Whether they push up the price of imports or push down the price of local goods, such initiatives will help locally produced goods compete more favorably with foreign goods. Both strategies are forms of trade controls—policies that restrict free trade. Because they protect domestic industries by reducing foreign competition, the use of such controls is often called protectionism. Though there’s considerable debate over the pros and cons of this practice, all countries engage in it to some extent. Before debating the issue, however, let’s learn about the more common types of trade restrictions: tariffs, quotas, and, embargoes.
Tariffs are taxes on imports. Because they raise the price of the foreign-made goods, they make them less competitive. The United States, for example, protects domestic makers of synthetic knitted shirts by imposing a stiff tariff of 32.5 percent on imports (Insider Online, 2009). Tariffs are also used to raise revenue for a government. Shoe imports are worth $2 billion annually to the federal government (Carney, 2011).
A quota imposes limits on the quantity of a good that can be imported over a period of time. Quotas are used to protect specific industries, usually new industries or those facing strong competitive pressure from foreign firms. U.S. import quotas take two forms. An absolute quota fixes an upper limit on the amount of a good that can be imported during the given period. A tariff-rate quota permits the import of a specified quantity and then adds a high import tax once the limit is reached.
Sometimes quotas protect one group at the expense of another. To protect sugar beet and sugar cane growers, for instance, the United States imposes a tariff-rate quota on the importation of sugar—a policy that has driven up the cost of sugar to two to three times world prices (Edwards, 2007). These artificially high prices push up costs for American candy makers, some of whom have moved their operations elsewhere, taking high-paying manufacturing jobs with them. Life Savers, for example, were made in the United States for ninety years but are now produced in Canada, where the company saves $10 million annually on the cost of sugar (Will, 2004).
An extreme form of quota is the embargo, which, for economic or political reasons, bans the import or export of certain goods to or from a specific country. The United States, for example, bans nearly every commodity originating in Cuba.
A common political rationale for establishing tariffs and quotas is the need to combat dumping: the practice of selling exported goods below the price that producers would normally charge in their home markets (and often below the cost of producing the goods). Usually, nations resort to this practice to gain entry and market share in foreign markets, but it can also be used to sell off surplus or obsolete goods. Dumping creates unfair competition for domestic industries, and governments are justifiably concerned when they suspect foreign countries of dumping products on their markets. They often retaliate by imposing punitive tariffs that drive up the price of the imported goods.
The Pros and Cons of Trade Controls
Opinions vary on government involvement in international trade. Some experts believe that governments should support free trade and refrain from imposing regulations that restrict the free flow of goods and services between nations. Others argue that governments should impose some level of trade regulations on imported goods and services.
Proponents of controls contend that there are a number of legitimate reasons why countries engage in protectionism. Sometimes they restrict trade to protect specific industries and their workers from foreign competition—agriculture, for example, or steel making. At other times, they restrict imports to give new or struggling industries a chance to get established. Finally, some countries use protectionism to shield industries that are vital to their national defense, such as shipbuilding and military hardware.
Despite valid arguments made by supporters of trade controls, most experts believe that such restrictions as tariffs and quotas—as well as practices that don’t promote level playing fields, such as subsidies and dumping—are detrimental to the world economy. Without impediments to trade, countries can compete freely. Each nation can focus on what it does best and bring its goods to a fair and open world market. When this happens, the world will prosper. Or so the argument goes. International trade hasn’t achieved global prosperity, but it’s certainly heading in the direction of unrestricted markets.
- Because they protect domestic industries by reducing foreign competition, the use of controls to restrict free trade is often called protectionism.
- Though there’s considerable debate over protectionism, all countries engage in it to some extent.
- Tariffs are taxes on imports. Because they raise the price of the foreign-made goods, they make them less competitive.
- Quotas are restrictions on imports that impose a limit on the quantity of a good that can be imported over a period of time. They’re used to protect specific industries, usually new industries or those facing strong competitive pressure from foreign firms.
- An embargo is a quota that, for economic or political reasons, bans the import or export of certain goods to or from a specific country.
- A common rationale for tariffs and quotas is the need to combat dumping—the practice of selling exported goods below the price that producers would normally charge in their home markets (and often below the costs of producing the goods).
- Some experts believe that governments should support free trade and refrain from imposing regulations that restrict the free flow of products between nations.
- Others argue that governments should impose some level of trade regulations on imported goods and services.
Because the United States has placed quotas on textile and apparel imports for the last thirty years, certain countries, such as China and India, have been able to export to the United States only as much clothing as their respective quotas permit. One effect of this policy was spreading textile and apparel manufacture around the world and preventing any single nation from dominating the world market. As a result, many developing countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Honduras, were able to enter the market and provide much-needed jobs for local workers. The rules, however, have changed: as of January 1, 2005, quotas on U.S. textile imports were eliminated, permitting U.S. companies to import textile supplies from any country they choose. In your opinion, what effect will the new U.S. policy have on each of the following groups:
1. Firms that outsource the manufacture of their apparel
2. Textile manufacturers and workers in the following countries:
- United States
3. American consumers
Carney, J., “The Affordable Footwear Act Is a Real Thing,” CNBC NetNet, June 1, 2011, http://www.cnbc.com/id/43239340/The_Affordable_Footwear_Act_Is_a_Real_Thing.
Edwards, C., “The Sugar Racket,” CATO Institute, Tax and Budget, June 2007, http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb_0607_46.pdf (accessed August 24, 2011).
Insider Online, “The Protectionist Swindle: How Trade Barriers Cheat the Poor and Middle Class,” Insider Online, December 1, 2009, http://www.insideronline.org/feature.cfm?id=270 (accessed August 24, 2011).
Will, G., “Sugar Quotas Produce Sour Results,” Detroit News, February 13, 2004, http://www.detnews.com/2004/editorial/0402/15/all-62634.htm (accessed October 17, 2004).