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Impact of the World Economy, Barriers to Trade

Smoot-Hawley Act, steelworkers, direct cash payments, imported cars, Great Depression

Despite the mutual advantages of global trade, governments often adopt policies that reduce or eliminate international trade in some markets. Historically, the most important trade barriers have been tariffs (taxes on imports) and quotas (limits on the number of products that can be imported into a country). In recent decades, however, many countries have used product safety standards or legal standards controlling the production or distribution of goods and services to make it difficult for foreign businesses to sell in their markets. For example, Russia recently used health standards to limit imports of frozen chicken from the United States, and the United States has frequently charged Japan with using legal restrictions and allowing exclusive trade agreements among Japanese companies. These exclusive agreements make it very difficult for U.S. banks and other firms to operate or sell products in Japan.

While there are special reasons for limiting imports or exports of certain kinds of products—such as products that are vital to a nation’s national defense—economists generally view trade barriers as hurting both importing and exporting nations. Although the trade barriers protect workers and firms in industries competing with foreign firms, the costs of this protection to consumers and other businesses are typically much higher than the benefits to the protected workers and firms. And in the long run it usually becomes prohibitively expensive to continue this kind of protection. Instead it often makes more sense to end the trade barrier and help workers in industries that are hurt by the increased imports to relocate or retrain for jobs with firms that are competitive. In the United States, trade adjustment assistance payments were provided to steelworkers and autoworkers in the late 1970s, instead of imposing trade barriers on imported cars. Since then, these direct cash payments have been largely phased out in favor of retraining programs.

During recessions, when national unemployment rates are high or rising, workers and firms facing competition from foreign companies usually want the government to adopt trade barriers to protect their industries. But again, historical experience with such policies shows that they do not work. Perhaps the most famous example of these policies occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The United States raised its tariffs and other trade barriers in legislation such as the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930. Other nations imposed similar kinds of trade barriers, and the overall result was to make the Great Depression even worse by reducing world trade.

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