What is a Tariff Policy?

Ken Black

A tariff policy is a strategy of taxing imported or exported goods and services from one country to another. These taxes often seek to protect domestic industries or punish countries for policies related or unrelated to the economy. Considered by friendlier countries to be a barrier to production and positive interaction, some countries have created exceptions to their tariff policies known as free trade agreements or free trade zones.

All goods imported into a country must be assessed by a customs agency.
All goods imported into a country must be assessed by a customs agency.

The primary focus of a tariff policy is to protect a domestic industry from a comparable foreign import that would otherwise be available at a much cheaper price. For example, if a country is trying to increase its automobile production, allowing in less expensive vehicles of similar quality in would stunt that industrial development. Therefore, a tariff policy may be enacted as a way to give the fledgling domestic industry a chance.

A tariff policy is a strategy of taxing imported or exported goods and services from one country to another.
A tariff policy is a strategy of taxing imported or exported goods and services from one country to another.

A tariff policy may be directed at a certain product or, to a lesser extent, at certain countries. A country may seek to impose economic sanctions on another country as a punitive measure, for example. The goal is to use economic pressures to encourage reform and change. In some cases, a tariff may be retaliatory to counter a tariff the other country has imposed.

Most tariff policies set up a harmonized tariff schedule, meaning if the products meet certain criteria, they are coded a certain way. This allows importers to fully understand what taxes they face coming into a country, based on the products they are carrying. Further, many countries are on a similar standard regarding how products are classified, which makes looking up the schedule and code for harmonized tariffs simpler.

To help counteract some of the negative effects of tariff policy on some countries, especially those in a close geographic region, free trade agreements may be signed. Two of the most well known are the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU) framework. NAFTA includes the United States, Canada and Mexico. The EU, which includes many countries on the European continent, is more than just a free trade agreement, but it functions in ways very similar to one. These agreements may limit or completely eliminate taxes that would otherwise be imposed by a tariff policy.

A free trade zone is similar to a free trade agreement, and tariff policy is often not enforced inside of such zones. They are different from free trade agreements because they do not cover entire countries, but only specific areas. Usually, these areas are border towns and cities that may depend on each other for trade. Enforcing import tariffs and export tariffs in such areas could be overly burdensome to the local economies.

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Discussion Comments


@Terrificli -- I don't mind a tariff at all because I am not convinced that lower labor costs means lower prices for consumers. I figure lower labor costs mean more profits for companies.

Here is what I mean. Let's say a smartphone costs $800 retail, but costs around $200 in parts and labor to produce. Are we really to believe that it costs a heck of a lot of money to promote and develop the product? In other words, if a company wants to turn a profit on each unit, are we to believe that $800 covers mostly manufacturing, marketing and development so a reasonable profit can be realized?

It could well be that that $800 phone would cost exactly that much regardless of where it was made and how cheap labor happened to be. Consumers have shown they will pay that price, so what motivation does a company have to drop it a single penny?


@Vincenzo -- I understand your point but I just can't agree with that idea. We have spent too much time pushing for free trade and we can't just take our ball and go home because we are not faring so well in a game that is played by the rules we wanted.

Besides, lower labor costs mean consumers win by paying less for items. American companies will learn to compete in a free trade environment by utilizing U.S. labor. They have done it before and will do it again.


A good, strong tariff policy is exactly what the United States needs. Think about it. One of the reasons we are losing jobs to overseas manufacturers is the availability of cheap labor. In theory, that savings in labor costs is passed on to consumers.

Taxing anything made out of the nation that is meant to be sold here would level the playing field. And that does mean that even American owned companies that manufacture goods outside the U.S. would be slapped with a tariff as soon as they were imported to the country.

It may seem like cheating to tilt the scales that way and make it expensive to sell to the nation with the largest consumer base, but we will be in real trouble unless we can reverse the trend of companies sending jobs overseas.

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