In a tweet, President Donald Trump wrote

@realDonaldTrump June 24, 2018

The United States is insisting that all countries that have placed artificial Trade Barriers and Tariffs on goods going into their country, remove those Barriers & Tariffs or be met with more than Reciprocity by the U.S.A. Trade must be fair and no longer a one way street!

The tone is certainly threatening and the term “artificial” carries strong negative connotations.

Am I correct to assume that an artificial tariff is similar to manmade? If so, aren't all tariffs artificial? The tweet seems to accuse the barriers and tariffs of being unnecessary, and the POTUS demands that they be removed. But doesn't every country place tariffs on imports? Why are the ones imposed on American exports "artificial"? Are they "fake" and/or illegitimate?

Oxford Dictionaries provide the following definition of the term artificial

1. Made or produced by human beings rather than occurring naturally, especially as a copy of something natural.
1.1 (of a situation or concept) not existing naturally; contrived or false.
2. (of a person or their behaviour) insincere or affected.

Is the phrase “artificial trade barriers and tariffs” used in the world of foreign and domestic commerce? What does the word artificial refer to exactly?

  • 3
    The use of 'artificial' is an attempt by Donald Trump to de-legitimise the actions of others. The inference is that his tariffs are 'real'. In the same way as he trumpets 'fake news' at every opportunity in order to legitimise his own perspective. 'Natural' and 'artificial' are not terms that really apply to tariffs, unlike sun tans. I'd have thought Donald Trump would know that distinction. – Manhatton Jun 26 '18 at 9:54
  • 2
    Since it doesn't seem idiomatic or particularly logical, It sounds like artificial doesn't distribute to tariffs. Artificial trade barriers, and plain old tariffs. It sounds like he wants all tariffs and any other impeding contrivances removed. However it's also possible that he was looking for a way to say non-symmetric or wanting to refer to deviations from some base line values, leaving space for negotiations. – Phil Sweet Jun 26 '18 at 9:54
  • 1
    Trying to make sense out of his tweets reminds me of people on ELL trying to understand rap lyrics. – Mike Harris Jun 26 '18 at 13:38
  • You probably would be better off asking in the Economics Stack Exchange. – Hot Licks Jun 26 '18 at 22:12

I think an appropriate definition of artificial as used above is:

made without regard to the particular needs of a situation, person, etc.; imposed arbitrarily;. unnatural:

  • artificial rules for dormitory residents.


The term with above connotation is used in economic contexts:

From The Anniversary Compulsion: by Peter H. Aykroyd - 1992

  • This meant that impossibly high artificial tariff walls would be erected and Canada's surplus coal, fish, farm and forest products would be rejected by the US . market in favour of lower-priced American products. Securing another market or an ...

From Citizenship in the Twentieth Century by Alastair Davidson - 1997

  • What the artificial tariff barrier also destroyed was, of course, the market exchange between different ethnic groups.

The economic concept of artificial tariff appears to have emerged with the free-trade theories of the 19th century:

From Sophisms of Free-Trade and Popular Political Economy... by John Barnard BYLES (Right Hon. Sir), ‎William Samuel LILLY - 1850 :

  • safely allow the money-market to be relieved by an extraordinary issue of notes, securely depending on the ultimate balance of trade, which in the long run, must, in consequence of your artificial tariff, be in favor of this country.
  • 2
    Ok, that looks good. But is the expression used in finance and trade? – Mari-Lou A Jun 26 '18 at 10:30

At least in the field of Law and Economics, "artificial tariffs" is an old jargon used to describe efforts at the country level to (unduly, some would say) protect national markets against international competition.

Such tariffs would have no objective other than artificially increasing import prices and distorting domestic competition in favour of local producers.

Another meaning for artificial in this context might be the existence of other domestic policies that distort market prices with an effect similar to a tariff, without actually being one.

When joining the WTO, countries agree to maintain import tariffs up to an agreed cap, but the actual effects of subsidies are subject to court action and investigation at the international level, granting practical, quasi-tariff effects to such policies until a final decision is reached.

As an example, there is an ongoing debate since the 1990s about the impacts of subsidies and incentives to agriculture in richer countries as a means to counteract cheaper rural commodities produced in peripheral countries at a lower cost. Lower production costs in recipient countries, then, lead to artificially lower market prices at the local level, with similar net effects of an import tariff.

There is a lot of controversy on the subject. Maybe the tweet was referring to similar cases.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.