Protectionism in the face of Recession

Readers Question: When a country faces a recession, can they just increase the import taxes? so the country local production is increased to meet the demand and improve employment as well as the economy?

It is an interesting question because often policymakers are tempted to pursue this as a strategy to boost domestic demand in the face of a recession.

If a country increases import taxes (tariff), then it may cause a shift to domestic demand. Higher tariffs on imports will increase the cost of imports, and therefore consumers will buy fewer imports and increased demand for domestic production. This will have a positive impact on employment and economic growth.

For example, if the US imposes a tariff on imports of foreign cars, there will be a shift to domestic car production which will cause higher domestic demand.

Problem of Import Tariffs

The problem of imposing import tariffs is that other countries tend to retaliate and impose their own import tariffs. Therefore, the US car industry may get a temporary boost in demand. But, in response, China and Japan impose tariffs on US exports of automobiles / electronics. Therefore although some US domestic producers gain from the US import tariffs. Others will later lose out because other countries put taxes on US exports.

Therefore, the retaliation tends to wipe out the gains from the initial import tax.

But, it may get worse. By imposing various tariffs, countries may end up specialising in goods where they don’t have a comparative advantage. If there is a decline in trade, firms will also not be able to benefit from economies of scale. (see: benefits of free trade) Models of free trade suggest bilateral tariffs lead to a decline in economic welfare for all countries concerned.

Global Recession and Tariffs

If the global economy is facing an economic downturn (e.g. like 2011) then all countries are seeking to increase domestic demand and boost economic growth. Therefore, if the US raised tariffs, it is likely to lead quick retaliation. China and  Japan would not be happy to see a decline in exports to the US because they need to increase their own demand.

It is important to understand that tariffs don’t create any additional demand, they merely shift demand from one part of the world to another. US import tariffs may increase US demand at the expense of demand and growth in Asia.

If the world economy was growing very strongly and a small country raised tariffs, it is possible that other countries wouldn’t bother to retaliate. In this case, the import tariffs may play a role in boost domestic demand.

Protectionism and the Great Depression

Arguably protectionist policies in the 1930s aggravated the decline in global trade and global economic growth. Faced with dramatic falls in domestic demand, countries began imposing import tariffs to try and protect and boost certain industries. However, this led to a global round of higher tariffs which led to a fall in international trade. (causes of Great Depression)

Alternative Policies to Avoid Recession

Rather than try and reduce import demand, it is better for policymakers to deal with the fundamental lack of demand in the economy. They can do this through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. See: Policies to avoid recession.


3 thoughts on “Protectionism in the face of Recession”

  1. Was this written by heritage foundation
    What do you mean
    We need tariffs and so what if china or another
    Country gets made we don’t export anything but raw goods
    And subsidized food
    Look at import tariffs in china Japan Korea


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