What Is Trade Protectionism?

An infographic of Trade Protectionism with an image of a cargo ship with an American flag and the headline “Trade Protectionism and Its Methods” and four separate methods described. “1. Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. It was designed to protect from agricultural imports from Europe. 2. When the government subsidizes local industries, That allows producers to lower the price of local goods and services. 3. Impose quotas on imported goods. No matter how low a foreign country sets the price through subsidies, it can’t ship more goods. 4. Deliberate attempt by a country to lower its currency value. This would make its exports cheaper and more competitive.”

The Balance


Trade protectionism is a policy that protects domestic industries from unfair foreign competition. The four primary tools used in trade protectionism are tariffs, subsidies, quotas, and currency manipulation.

Definition and Examples of Trade Protectionism

Trade protectionism is a measured and purposeful policy by a nation to control imports while promoting exports. It is done in an effort to promote the economy of the nation above all other economies.

For example, if a U.S. manufacturer produced goods domestically that were more expensive than foreign imports, the government might enact tariffs, or import taxes, that boost the price of the foreign-made products. The effect would be make the U.S.-made goods more competitive on price.

How Trade Protectionism Works

The most common protectionist strategy is to enact tariffs that tax imports. That immediately raises the price of imported goods. They become less competitive when compared to locally-produced goods. This method works best for countries with a lot of imports, such as the U.S.

The chart below shows the share of tariffs collected on U.S. imports since 1790. Tariffs hit a record 57.3% in 1830 due to the Tariff of Abominations. They hit a record low in 2008 at 1.2%.

Protectionism fell out of favor after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. It was designed to protect farmers from agricultural imports from Europe. U.S. farmers were already suffering from the Dust Bowl and European farmers were ramping up production after the destruction of World War I. But Congress added many other tariffs. Other countries retaliated. The resultant trade war restricted global trade. It was one reason for the extended severity of the Great Depression.

The Use of Subsidies

Governments also frequently subsidize local industries to help them compete in the global market. Subsidies come in the form of tax credits or direct payments. Some of the most commonly used subsidies are granted to farms, which allows farmers to lower the price of the food they produce. In turn, these subsidies make the products affordable for the consumer while still allowing the producer to turn a profit.

There are instances when subsidies can cause problems. For instance, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 allowed the government to pay farmers not to grow crops or livestock. The government wanted to control supply and increase prices. The act also enabled farmers the chance to let their fields rest and regain nutrients due to overproduction. In this case, the subsidies helped the agriculture industry but raised food costs during the Depression and hurt consumers.

Using Import Quotas and Currency Manipulation

A third method is to impose quotas on imported goods. This method is more effective than the first two. No matter how low a foreign country sets the price through subsidies, it can’t ship more goods.

Currency manipulation is a deliberate attempt by a country to lower the value of its currency. While it can make exports cheaper and more competitive in the short term, currency manipulation can also result in retaliation by other countries and start a currency war. One way countries can lower their currency's value is through a fixed exchange rate.


Another way to manipulate currency is by creating so much national debt that the currency becomes less valuable.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Trade Protectionism 

  • Protects a country's new industries from foreign competition

  • Temporarily creates jobs

  • Companies without competition decline in quality

  • Leads to the outsourcing of jobs

  • Slows economic growth

Advantages Explained

  • Protects a country's new industries from foreign competition: If a country is trying to grow strong in a new industry, tariffs will protect it from foreign competitors. That gives the new industry’s companies time to develop their competitive advantages.
  • Temporarily creates jobs for domestic workers: The protection of tariffs, quotas, or subsidies allows domestic companies to hire locally. This benefit ends once other countries retaliate by erecting protectionist policies of their own.

Disadvantages Explained

  • Companies without competition decline in quality: In the long term, trade protectionism weakens industry. Without competition, companies do not need to innovate. Eventually, the domestic product will decline in quality and be more expensive than that produced by foreign competitors.
  • Leads to outsourcing of jobs: Job outsourcing is a result of declining U.S. competitiveness. This failure is particularly true for high-tech, engineering, and science. Increased trade opens new markets for businesses to sell their products. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that ending all trade barriers would increase U.S. income by $500 billion.
  • Slows economic growth: Protectionism causes more layoffs, not fewer. If the U.S. closes its borders to trade, other countries will do the same. These actions could cause layoffs among the millions of U.S. workers who owe their jobs to exports.

Key Takeaways

  • The four primary tools used in trade protectionism are tariffs, subsidies, quotas, and currency manipulation.
  • While nations may experience a temporary period of economic stability or even growth as a result of protectionism by eliminating outside competition, in the long run they experience shrinking economies and isolationism as competitors respond in kind.
  • Protectionist countries eventually see drops in innovation, employment, and economic growth.
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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives. “The Tariff of Abominations: The Effects.”

  2. The Atlas. "Taxes on US Imports as a Share of Total Imports Value."

  3. U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. "Protectionism in the Interwar Period."

  4. Foundation for Economic Education. "The Smoot-Hawley Tariff and the Great Depression."

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Farm Bills and Farmers: The Effects of Subsidies Over Time."

  6. Brad W. Setser and Dylan Yalbir. "Tracking Currency Manipulation."

  7. Foundation for Economic Education. "Protectionism and Unemployment."

  8. Peterson Institute for International Economics. "The Payoff From Globalization."

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