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IB DP Economics Study Notes

3.7.5 Trade Policies

Trade policies are instrumental frameworks determining the interaction between countries regarding import and export activities, directly affecting domestic industries and the broader economic landscape.


Protectionism signifies the implementation of policies restricting imports through various methods to shield domestic industries from external competition.

An infographic illustrating protectionism in selected countries

Image courtesy of statista

Reasons for Protectionism

  • Domestic Industry Protection:
    • It is crucial to protect industries vital to the national economy and prevent the decline of strategic sectors.
    • Protectionism can foster the growth of industries until they can compete internationally.
    • To prevent the overshadowing of local industries by multinational corporations.
  • Employment Protection:
    • Local employment benefits from reduced competition from imported goods.
    • It can help maintain employment levels in strategic or vulnerable industries.
    • Safeguarding employment in areas where alternative employment opportunities are scarce.
  • National Security:
    • Some industries are imperative for the security of a nation, and their protection is paramount.
    • The protection of the defence industry, for example, is often deemed crucial for national security.
  • Infant Industry Argument:
    • New or emerging industries may need protection to develop and gain international competitiveness.
    • This infant industry argument supports this notion by suggesting that temporary protection may be necessary for these industries to establish themselves without immediate pressure from well-established international competitors.
  • Anti-Dumping:
    • Protectionism can prevent foreign producers from selling goods at excessively low prices, protecting domestic producers from unfair competition.

Tools of Protectionism

  • Tariffs:
    • These are taxes imposed on imports, raising their price and making domestic goods more competitive. The impact of tariffs on international trade dynamics is significant, influencing both the economy and consumers.
    • Tariffs provide revenue for the government but may lead to increased prices for consumers.
  • Quotas:
    • These are restrictions on the quantity of a good that can be imported, protecting domestic producers from excessive foreign competition. Understanding the role of quotas in trade policies reveals their effects on market supply and prices.
    • Quotas can lead to shortages, pushing up prices and potentially encouraging smuggling.
  • Subsidies:
    • Government grants to domestic producers reduce their costs, enabling them to compete with cheaper foreign goods. The provision of subsidies to domestic producers plays a critical role in supporting national industries in the global market.
    • Subsidies can distort market outcomes and can lead to overproduction and inefficient allocation of resources.
  • Export Restraints:
    • These are agreements to limit exports to a particular country to protect domestic producers in that country from excessive competition.
    • While they can support domestic industries in the importing country, they can hinder the exporting country’s industries.
  • Administrative Barriers:
    • These are regulatory barriers such as stringent quality standards and bureaucratic red tape that impede imports.
    • Administrative barriers can make it exceedingly difficult for foreign goods to enter the market, providing a competitive advantage to domestic producers.

Effects of Protectionism

  • Reduced Efficiency:
    • Protectionism can limit competition and lead to inefficiency and complacency among domestic producers.
    • Consumers may face higher prices and lower quality as domestic firms face less pressure to innovate and improve.
  • Retaliation and Trade Wars:
    • Other countries might retaliate with their trade restrictions, potentially escalating into trade wars, causing global economic instability and harming international relations.
  • Limited Consumer Choice:
    • Reduction in the variety of goods available to consumers and possibly higher prices due to limited competition.
  • Market Distortion:
    • It can distort markets by encouraging resources to flow into protected industries, potentially leading to overproduction and misallocation of resources.
IB Economics Tutor Tip: Understanding trade policies requires balancing the benefits of protectionism and free trade, considering their impact on domestic industries, employment, and international relations for a holistic economic perspective.

Free Trade

Free trade encourages the unrestrained movement of goods and services between countries, enhancing global economic integration and cooperation.

Advantages of Free Trade

  • Economic Efficiency:
    • Encourages competition and specialization, fostering efficient allocation of resources according to comparative advantage.
    • Industries focus on producing goods and services where they have a competitive edge, boosting productivity and reducing costs.
  • Consumer Benefits:
    • Offers consumers access to a wider range of goods and services at competitive prices.
    • The increased competition results in innovation and improved product quality.
  • Economic Growth and Development:
    • Access to larger markets spurs economic activity, innovation, and investment.
    • Developing countries can benefit from technology transfer, enhanced skills, and employment opportunities.
  • International Cooperation:
    • Economic interdependence fosters peaceful relations and cooperation between nations, reducing the likelihood of conflict.

Disadvantages of Free Trade

  • Domestic Industry Vulnerability:
    • Industries exposed to international competition may struggle, leading to job losses and deindustrialization in some sectors.
    • Vulnerable industries may require transitional support to adapt to increased competition.
  • Inequality and Social Issues:
    • The benefits of free trade may not be evenly distributed, potentially exacerbating inequality within and between nations.
    • Adjustment to free trade can lead to social and economic disruptions, such as unemployment and inequality.
  • Cultural Erosion:
    • The influx of foreign goods and services may lead to the erosion of local cultures and identities.
    • Local traditions and industries might face extinction due to overwhelming foreign influence.
  • Economic Dependency:
    • Smaller or less developed economies may become overly reliant on international markets and vulnerable to external economic shocks.

Trade Agreements

Trade agreements are collaborative arrangements aiming to diminish or eradicate trade barriers and elevate international trade.

A diagram illustrating free trade agreements

Image courtesy of wallstreetmojo

Types of Trade Agreements

  • Bilateral Trade Agreements:
    • These involve two nations agreeing to relax trade restrictions and increase trade between them.
    • These agreements can be tailored to suit the specific needs and preferences of the involved countries.
  • Multilateral Trade Agreements:
    • These involve multiple countries and are usually more complex, aimed at addressing global trade issues.
    • The World Trade Organization is a notable framework for multilateral trade agreements and negotiations.
  • Regional Trade Agreements:
    • These are agreements between countries in a specific region to reduce trade barriers and promote economic integration.
    • Examples include the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Importance of Trade Agreements

  • Stabilization of Economic Relations:
    • Trade agreements foster stable and predictable economic relationships, reducing uncertainty and facilitating international business activities.
    • They encourage investments by creating a more predictable and secure trading environment.
  • Enhanced Market Access:
    • By reducing trade barriers, trade agreements provide businesses with better access to international markets, potentially leading to increased exports and economic growth.
  • Dispute Settlement Mechanisms:
    • Trade agreements often include provisions for resolving disputes between countries, promoting fair trade practices and mitigating conflicts.
  • Promotion of Economic Development:
    • For developing countries, trade agreements can aid in integrating into the global economy, attracting foreign investments, and enhancing economic development.

Challenges in Trade Agreements

  • Complicated Negotiations:
    • Achieving consensus among diverse countries with varying economic interests can be protracted and complex.
    • Balancing national interests and compromises is often challenging, and negotiations may stall due to disagreements.
  • Concerns over Sovereignty:
    • Some nations fear trade agreements may compromise their ability to govern their economic and trade policies, leading to reluctance in entering such agreements.
  • Implementation and Compliance:
    • Adhering to and implementing the provisions of trade agreements can be challenging, requiring adjustments in domestic laws and policies.
    • Monitoring compliance and enforcing rules are often complicated and can lead to disputes.
  • Equity and Fairness:
    • There are concerns that the benefits and burdens of trade agreements are not shared equitably among participating countries.
    • Developing countries, in particular, may struggle to benefit from agreements dominated by more developed nations.
IB Tutor Advice: Compare and contrast protectionism and free trade in essay questions, using examples of trade policies and their effects to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of their implications on global economics.

Examples of Trade Agreements

  • World Trade Organisation (WTO):
    • Serves as the principal international body to help promote and regulate trade between nations and resolve disputes.
    • The WTO provides a platform for member countries to negotiate trade agreements and settle disputes amicably.
  • North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):
    • Established a trilateral trade bloc in North America, reducing trade barriers between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
    • NAFTA aimed to increase economic integration and cooperation among the member countries, fostering mutual economic growth.
  • European Union (EU):
    • The EU serves as a political and economic union of 27 European countries, promoting economic integration, and establishing a single market.
    • It facilitates the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital among member states, fostering economic cooperation and development.
An infographic illustrating European Union (EU) timeline

Image courtesy of destatis


Trade policies, involving protectionism, free trade, and trade agreements, hold paramount importance in international economic relations. They shape the trajectory of goods and services across borders, influencing consumer options, industry prosperity, and the economic future of nations. Balancing protectionism and free trade is crucial to ensure sustained economic growth, innovation, and international cooperation while safeguarding national interests and economic stability. Whether leaning towards protectionist policies or embracing free trade, nations strive to bolster their economies, protect their interests, and navigate the complexities of international economic landscapes. The intricate tapestry of international trade policy continues to evolve as nations navigate their economic destinies in an interconnected world economy.


The principle of comparative advantage is highly relevant in the context of trade policies. It suggests that countries should specialise in producing goods and services where they have the lowest opportunity cost and trade for other needed items. This principle underpins the rationale for free trade, as it allows for greater efficiency and mutual benefit for all trading partners. Trade policies that align with this principle, such as those reducing trade barriers, enable countries to capitalise on their comparative advantages, enhancing global resource allocation, increasing production efficiency, and promoting international economic welfare.

Trade policies play a pivotal role in shaping international relations as they influence economic interactions between nations. Policies promoting free trade generally foster mutual economic growth and cooperation, reinforcing positive diplomatic relations. Conversely, protectionist policies can strain relationships, potentially leading to trade wars. For instance, imposing high tariffs can provoke retaliatory measures, causing a cycle of escalating tensions. This can spill over into other areas of international relations, impacting diplomatic ties, security cooperation, and negotiations on global issues such as climate change and human rights.

Yes, trade agreements can sometimes result in the loss of domestic jobs, especially in industries that face stiff competition from imported goods. When countries enter into trade agreements, domestic industries often experience increased competition from foreign firms, which might have cost advantages, potentially leading to closures of less competitive domestic firms. For example, industries in developed countries with higher labour costs might struggle to compete with imports from countries with lower labour costs, leading to deindustrialisation and job losses in certain sectors, affecting local communities and overall employment levels in the process.

Protectionism can have a detrimental impact on innovation and technological advancements. By sheltering domestic firms from international competition, protectionist policies can reduce the incentive for these firms to innovate and improve efficiency, as the lack of competition can lead to complacency. In contrast, exposure to global competition can stimulate innovation and drive firms to improve products and processes, contributing to technological advancements and productivity gains. Additionally, protectionism can limit access to foreign technologies and ideas, which can stifle technological progress and impede economic growth in the long term.

Protectionist policies often lead to reduced consumer choice and higher prices. By limiting foreign competition through measures such as tariffs and quotas, domestic producers are often able to raise prices due to decreased competition. For example, if a country imposes high tariffs on imported automobiles, consumers within the country may have fewer choices of brands and models and may face higher prices for both imported and domestically-produced cars. In the long run, this can lead to decreased consumer welfare as consumers might have to settle for less preferable or lower quality options at elevated prices.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the extent to which protectionist policies can be justified as a means to shield domestic industries. Use examples to illustrate your response.

Protectionist policies, like tariffs and quotas, can be justified to some extent as they enable fledgeling domestic industries to grow without the intense pressure from well-established international competitors, a concept known as the ‘Infant Industry Argument’. For instance, protecting a nascent automotive industry can allow it to mature and potentially compete globally. Additionally, such policies can preserve employment in strategic industries and safeguard national security by protecting vital sectors like defence. However, protectionism can lead to inefficiencies, higher consumer prices, and potential retaliation, damaging international trade relationships and impacting the overall economic welfare negatively.

Discuss the potential advantages and disadvantages of a country engaging in a bilateral trade agreement, providing examples where applicable.

Bilateral trade agreements, such as the one between the USA and South Korea, can be beneficial as they can foster economic cooperation, reduce trade barriers, and increase trade between the involved nations. They allow tailored negotiations to address the specific needs and preferences of the concerned countries, potentially leading to mutual economic growth. However, there can be disadvantages too. These agreements may divert trade away from nations not included in the agreement, potentially harming their economic interests. Additionally, there could be concerns over sovereignty and compromise of domestic industries, especially if there is a significant disparity in economic power between the involved nations.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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