TutorChase logo
Decorative notebook illustration
IB DP Economics Study Notes

4.2.1 Tariffs

Understanding tariffs is vital for grasping the intricacies of international trade as they significantly impact trade dynamics and economic environments of both importing and exporting countries.


A tariff is essentially a tax that is applied to imported goods and services, levied by the government of the importing country. The primary aim of imposing tariffs is to increase the market price of imported goods to encourage consumers to prefer domestically produced goods, thus protecting local industries from foreign competition.

A chart illustrating tariff rates of selected countries

Image courtesy of exaequoblog

Types of Tariffs

Ad Valorem Tariffs

  • This type of tariff is levied as a percentage of the value of the imported good or service.
    • For Instance: A bicycle valued at £100, with an ad valorem tariff of 10%, would incur a £10 tariff.
  • Implications: This type of tariff is transparent but might be complicated to administer as it requires accurate valuation of goods.

Specific Tariffs

  • These are fixed fees levied on a per-unit basis of an imported good.
    • For Instance: A specific tariff may be £5 per imported bicycle, irrespective of its value.
  • Implications: Specific tariffs are simple to administer but may not account for fluctuations in prices and values of goods, leading to disproportionate impacts.

Compound Tariffs

  • These combine both ad valorem and specific tariffs.
    • For Instance: A bicycle might be subject to a 5% ad valorem tariff in addition to a specific tariff of £3.
  • Implications: Compound tariffs can provide more protection to domestic industries and more revenue to governments but can be complex to administer.

Variable Tariffs

  • Variable tariffs are adjusted to maintain the price of imported goods at a predetermined level.
    • For Instance: If the global price of wheat decreases, the tariff is increased to maintain the price of imported wheat at the predetermined level.
  • Implications: This helps in stabilising domestic markets but can lead to uncertainty and distortions in international trade.

Transit Tariffs

  • These are taxes levied on goods passing through one country en route to another.
    • For Instance: Goods moving from Country A through Country B to reach Country C may incur transit tariffs in Country B.
  • Implications: This may lead to changes in trade routes and may impact trade dynamics among different countries.

Export Tariffs

  • These are imposed on goods leaving the country.
    • For Instance: A country with a monopoly on a specific resource may impose export tariffs to control its availability globally.
  • Implications: It may lead to increased revenue but can potentially reduce the competitiveness of domestic producers in international markets.

Preferential Tariffs

  • Preferential tariffs involve reduced tariff rates for goods from certain countries or regions.
    • For Instance: Trade bloc members might offer each other preferential tariff rates to stimulate trade within the bloc.
  • Implications: This can strengthen economic cooperation among certain countries but may lead to trade diversion from non-member countries.
A graph of tariff

A graph illustrating tariff.

Image courtesy of economicshelp

Effects of Tariffs

On Consumers

  • Increased Prices: Tariffs translate to higher prices for foreign goods and services, affecting consumer purchasing power and cost of living.
  • Limited Product Variety: Reduced availability of foreign goods limits choices for consumers, potentially impacting the quality of life.
  • Consumer Surplus Decline: The increased prices lead to a decrease in consumer surplus, affecting consumer welfare and economic efficiency.

On Producers

  • Protection and Competitive Advantage: Tariffs protect domestic industries from foreign competition, providing them with a competitive advantage in the domestic market.
  • Producer Surplus Expansion: The elevated prices and potentially increased sales can enhance revenues and profits for domestic industries.
  • Risk of Inefficiency: Prolonged protection can lead to complacency, inefficiencies, and lack of innovation due to reduced competition.
IB Economics Tutor Tip: Understanding tariffs reveals the balance between protecting domestic industries and the broader implications on international trade, efficiency, and consumer choice, underscoring the complexity of global economic interdependence.

On Government

  • Revenue Source: Tariffs serve as a source of revenue which can be used for public services, infrastructure development, or reducing other taxes.
  • Policy Implementation Tool: Governments use tariffs to enforce economic policies, protect emerging industries, or discourage consumption of harmful goods.

On International Trade

  • Trade Volume Reduction: Elevated tariffs can decrease international trade volume and disrupt global economic activity.
  • Risk of Retaliatory Tariffs: Countries affected by tariffs may impose their own counter-tariffs, potentially escalating into trade wars.
  • Distortion of Comparative Advantage: Tariffs distort prices and can lead to inefficient allocation of resources on a global scale, affecting global economic welfare.
A chart illustrating trade war between the US and China

Image courtesy of weforum

On Economic Welfare

  • Deadweight Loss Occurrence: The loss in consumer surplus often exceeds the gains in producer surplus and government revenue, leading to a deadweight loss in economic welfare.
  • Impact on Low-Income Households: Tariffs tend to have a disproportionate impact on low-income households as they spend a higher proportion of their incomes on goods and services.

On Economic Development

  • Promotion of Domestic Industries: Tariffs encourage self-reliance and industrialisation by protecting domestic industries from foreign competition. Understanding the terms of trade is crucial as it further explains how tariffs can influence a country's export and import values, affecting its economic conditions.
  • Impact on Industrialisation and Development: Tariffs can foster industrialisation in developing countries by offering a competitive advantage to local industries.
  • Balance of Payments Management: Tariffs can help in managing the balance of payments by reducing imports and supporting domestic production.

On Global Economy

  • Disruption in Global Supply Chains: Tariffs can disrupt global supply chains, impacting production processes and business strategies across countries.
  • Potential Impact on Global Growth: Widespread imposition of tariffs can hamper global economic growth by reducing international trade and economic cooperation.
  • Formation of Trade Blocs and Alliances: Tariffs often lead to the formation of regional trade blocs and alliances which seek to reduce or eliminate tariffs amongst member countries.
IB Tutor Advice: For exams, focus on the impacts of different types of tariffs on price, consumer choice, and global trade dynamics, using examples to illustrate how they affect economic welfare and trade relationships.

Final Considerations

Understanding the types and impacts of tariffs is essential to gain insights into how they shape economic landscapes and trade relations. While they may offer protection to domestic industries and generate revenue, tariffs can also distort trade, reduce economic welfare, and trigger retaliatory measures, affecting international relations and global economic stability. Balancing the benefits and drawbacks of tariffs is crucial in formulating trade policies that foster economic growth and international cooperation.

To comprehend how tariffs fit within broader trade policies, it's beneficial to explore their interaction with quotas and subsidies to domestic producers, which also aim to protect domestic industries. Additionally, understanding the infant industry argument provides insight into why newly established sectors may need protection through tariffs. Finally, the dynamics of tariffs are closely linked to the types of exchange rate systems, as exchange rate fluctuations can impact the effectiveness of tariffs.


Tariffs can potentially foster improved product quality and innovation within domestic industries. By reducing competition from imports through tariffs, domestic producers may experience increased market share and profits, which can be reinvested in research and development. This reinvestment can lead to the creation of higher-quality products and drive innovation within the industry. However, this is not guaranteed, as reduced competition can also lead to complacency, with firms having less incentive to innovate or improve quality due to a lack of external competitive pressure.

Tariffs can significantly increase government revenue, especially if imposed on high-volume import goods. By levying tariffs, governments collect additional income which can be used to fund public services or reduce other taxes. However, this might not be sustainable in the long term. If tariffs are too high, they can reduce the quantity of goods imported, potentially decreasing the overall revenue obtained from tariffs. Moreover, the imposition of tariffs can lead to retaliatory measures from trading partners, impacting export-reliant sectors of the economy and diminishing the overall economic growth and welfare.

Tariffs are often associated with economic nationalism and self-sufficiency as they are utilised to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Economic nationalism prioritises domestic production and consumption, aiming to reduce reliance on foreign goods and services. By imposing tariffs, a government can encourage consumers to buy domestic products, supporting local industries and promoting self-sufficiency. While fostering national industries, it can, however, lead to inefficiencies and a decline in international cooperation, possibly resulting in retaliatory trade barriers and strained international relations.

Yes, it is legal for countries to impose tariffs; however, they are regulated by international treaties and agreements. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) sets out the legal framework for international trade, ensuring that tariffs and other trade barriers are applied fairly and consistently. Countries are generally encouraged to reduce tariffs, but they have the right to protect their domestic industries if they believe they are being undermined by unfair competition, as long as they comply with WTO rules and obligations.

Tariffs can influence inflation and the cost of living by increasing the price of imported goods and services. When tariffs are imposed, the additional costs are often passed on to the consumer, raising prices and contributing to inflationary pressures. This increase in prices can elevate the cost of living, particularly in countries heavily reliant on imported goods or where imported goods have no domestic substitutes. As costs of essential items rise, consumers may experience a decline in their purchasing power, impacting their overall standard of living and economic well-being.

Practice Questions

Evaluate how implementing ad valorem tariffs can impact a country’s domestic industries and international trade relations.

Implementing ad valorem tariffs can lead to the protection of domestic industries by increasing the price of imported goods, thereby offering a competitive edge to local producers. This protection can aid in the survival and growth of emerging industries and promote domestic production, fostering economic development. However, it can also strain international trade relations as trading partners may perceive it as a barrier to free trade, possibly resulting in retaliatory tariffs. This may lead to decreased trade volumes, potentially impacting the economic welfare of the involved nations negatively.

Analyse the implications of a government imposing high tariffs on imported goods on consumer surplus and producer surplus in the domestic market.

High tariffs on imported goods can significantly reduce consumer surplus by elevating prices of imported goods, leaving consumers with less disposable income or forcing them to settle for potentially inferior domestic alternatives. On the other hand, this scenario is likely to benefit domestic producers as their goods become relatively cheaper compared to the imported ones, leading to an increase in producer surplus. This phenomenon may encourage domestic production and can potentially lead to increased employment and investment in the domestic industries, although it may provoke international disputes over trade barriers.

Dave avatar
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.

Hire a tutor

Please fill out the form and we'll find a tutor for you.

1/2 About yourself
Still have questions?
Let's get in touch.