Protective Trade Policies11/02/2020
Trade protectionism is a policy that protects domestic industries from unfair competition from foreign ones. The four primary tools are tariffs, subsidies, quotas, and currency manipulation.
Protectionism is a politically motivated defensive measure. In the short run, it works. But it is very destructive in the long term. It makes the country and its industries less competitive in international trade.
Arguments for Protection
The concept of protection is not a post-Second World War development. Its origin can be traced to the days of mercantilism (i.e., 16th century). Since then various arguments have been made in favour of protection.
The case for protection for the developing countries received a strong support from Argentine economist R. D. Prebisch and Hans Singer in the 1950s.
All these arguments can be summed up under three heads:
- Fallacious or dubious arguments
- Economic arguments
- Non-economic arguments
- Fallacious Arguments
Fallacious arguments do not stand after scrutiny. These arguments are dubious in nature in the sense that both are true. ‘To keep money at home’ is one such fallacious argument. By restricting trade, a country need not spend money to buy imported articles. If every nation pursues this goal, ultimately global trade will squeeze.
- Economic Arguments
(a) Infant industry argument
Perhaps the oldest as well as the cogent argument for protection is the infant industry argument. When the industry is first established its costs will be higher. It is too immature to reap economies of scale at its infancy. Workers are not only inexperienced but also less efficient. If this infant industry is allowed to grow independently, surely it will be unable to compete effectively with the already established industries of other countries.
Thus, an infant industry needs protection of a temporary nature and over time will experience some sort of ‘learning effect’. Given time to develop an industry, it is quite likely that in the near future it will be able to develop a comparative advantage, withstand foreign competition and survive without protection.
It is something like the dictum: Nurse the baby, protect the child, and free the adult. Once an embryonic industry gets matured it can withstand competition. Competition improves efficiency. Once efficiency is attained, protection may be withdrawn. Thus, an underdeveloped country attempting to have rapid industrialisation needs protection of certain industries.
However, in actual practice, the infant industry argument, even in LDCs, loses some strength. Some economists suggest production subsidy rather than protection of certain infant industries. Protection, once granted to an industry, continues for a long time. On the other hand, subsidy is a temporary measure since continuance of it in the next year requires approval of the legislature.
Above all, expenditure on subsidy is subject to financial audit. Thus, protection is something like a “gift”. Secondly, protection saps the self-sufficiency outlook of the protected industries. Once protection is granted, it becomes difficult to withdraw it even after attaining maturity. That means infant industries, even after maturity, get ‘old age pension’.
In other words, infant industries become too much dependent on tariffs and other countries. Thirdly, it is difficult to identify potential comparative advantage industries. A time period of 5 to 10 years may be required by an industry to achieve maturity or self-sufficiency. Under the circumstances, infant industry argument loses force.
In view of these criticisms, it is said by experts that the argument “boils down to a case for the removal of obstacles to the growth of the infants. It does not demonstrate that a tariff is the most efficient means of attaining the objective.”
These counter-arguments, however, do not deter us to support the growth of infant industries in less developed countries by means of tariff, rather than subsidies.
(b) Diversification argument
As free trade increases specialisation, so protected trade brings in diversified industrial structure. By setting up newer and variety of industries through protective means, a country minimises the risk in production. Comparative advantage principle dictates narrow specialisation in production.
This sort of specialisation is not only undesirable from the viewpoint of economic development, but also a risky proposition. Efficiency in production in some products by some countries (e.g., coffee of Brazil, milk product of New Zealand, oil of Middle East countries) results in overdependence on these products.
If war breaks out, or if political relations between countries change, or if recessionary demand condition for the product grows up abroad, the economies of these industries will be greatly injured. Above all, this sort of unbalanced industrial growth goes against the spirit of national self-sufficiency. Protection is the answer to this problem. A government encourages diverse industries to develop through protective means.
However, a counter-argument runs. Politics, rather than economics, may be the criterion for the selection of industries to be protected in order to produce diversification at a reasonable cost. But, one must not ignore economics of protection.
(c) Employment argument
Protection can raise the level of employment. Tariffs may reduce import and, in the process, import competing industries flourish. In addition, import- substituting industries the substitution of domestic production for imports of manufactures develop. The strategy of import-substituting industrialisation promotes domestic industry at the expense of foreign industries.
Thus, employment potential under protective regime is quite favourable. In brief, tariff stimulates investment in import-competing and import substitution industries. Such investment produces favourable employment multiplier.
But cut in imports following import substituting industrialisation strategy may ultimately cause our exports to decline.
(d) Balance of payments argument
A deficit in the balance of payments can be cured by curtailing imports. However, imports will decline following a rise in tariff rate provided other trading partners do not retaliate by imposing tariff on a country’s export. However, import restrictions through tariff may be uncalled for if the balance of payments crisis becomes serious and chronic. In view of this and other associated problems of tariff, it is said that tariff is a second best policy.
(e) Anti-dumping argument
Usually, we hear about unfair competition from firms of low-cost countries. One particular form of unfair competition is dumping which is outlawed by international trade pacts, such as WTO. Dumping is a form of price discrimination that occurs in trade. Dumping occurs when a country sells a product abroad at a low price because of competition and at a high price in the home market because of monopoly power.
In other words, dumping is a kind of subsidy given to export goods. This unfair practice can be prevented by imposing tariff. Otherwise, workers and firms competing with the dumped products will be hit hard.
(f) Strategic trade advantage argument
It is argued that tariffs and other import restrictions create a strategic advantage in producing some new products having potential for generating some net profit. There are some large firms who prevent entry of new firms because of the economies of large scale production. Thus, these large firms reap pure profits over the long run during which new firms may not dare enough to compete with these established large firms. Thus, the large scale economies themselves prevent entry of new firms.
But as far as new products are concerned, a new firm may develop and market these products and reap substantial profit. Ultimately, successful new firms producing new products become one of the few established firms in the industry. New firms showing potential for the future must be protected. “If protection in the domestic market can increase the chance that one of the protected domestic firms will become one of the established firms in the international market, the protection may pay off.”
- Non-Economic Arguments
(a) National defense argument
There are some industries which may be inefficient by birth or high cost due to many reasons and must be protected. This logic may apply to the production of national defence goods or necessary food items. Whatever the cost may be, there is no question of compromise for the defence industry since ‘defence is more important than opulence’. Dependence on foreign countries regarding supply of basic food items as well as defence products is absolutely unwise.
However, objections against this argument may be cited here. It is difficult to identify a particular item as a defence industry item because we have seen that many industries— from garlic to clothespin—applied for protection on defence grounds. Candlestick-maker (for emergency lighting) and toothpick-maker (to have good dental hygiene for the troops) demanded protection at different times at different places. A nation which builds up its military strength through tariff protection does not sound convincing. Thus, tariff is a second-best solution.
(b) Miscellaneous arguments against protection
There are some good ‘side effects’ or ‘spillover effects’ of protection. This means that it produces some undesirable effects on the economy and the basic objective of protection can be attained rather in a costless manner by other direct means other than protection. That is, protection is never more than a second-best solution.
Firstly, protection distorts the comparative advantage in production. This means that specialisation in production may be lost if a country imposes tariff. All these lead to squeezing of trade. Secondly, it imposes a cost on the society since consumers buy goods at a high price. Thirdly, often weak declining industries having no potential future stay on the economy under the protective umbrella. Fourthly, international tension often escalates, particularly when tariff war begins.
Usually, a foreign country retaliates by imposing tariff on its imports from the tariff-imposing country. Once the retaliatory attitude (i.e., ‘beggar-my-neighbour policy’) develops, benefits from protection will be lost. Finally, protection encourages bureaucracy. Increase in trade restrictions means expansion of governmental activity and, hence, rise in administrative cost. Bureaucracy ultimately leads to corruption.
The classical golden age of free trade no longer exists in the world. But, free trade concept has not been abandoned since the case for free trade is strongest in the long run. Protection is a short term measure. Thus, the issue for public policy is the best reconciliation of these two perspectives so that gains from trade (may be free or restricted) become the greatest.
In recent times (July 2008), most of the countries (153) are members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which favour more free trade than restricted trade. This philosophy gathered momentum in the Dunkel Draft and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations. The aims of both the GATT (abolished in 1995) and now the WTO are trade liberalisation rather than trade restrictions.