Tariff (n.) - Invisible Taxes

Tariff (n.) - Invisible Taxes

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A list of fees imposed by a state or government on imported or exported goods as they enter or exit the country.

History & Etymology

 On the southern coast of spain there sits a small town called Tarifa. This name was given to the town after it was conquered by a Berber Muslim named Tarif ibn Malik in the year 710.  According to Wikipedia this small city was the first to charge a tax or duty on any goods coming in through the port, and this is where we get the word tariff.

Or it would be if you believed everything on wikipedia. It’s a fun little etymology that probably isn’t the actual origin of the word but it’s a fun story nonetheless. I haven’t been able to verify the veracity of the claim that Tarifa was the first city to have a tariff either way.

A more likely origin of the word tariff is an Old Arabic word ta’rif which meant, “information, notification, or inventory of fees to be paid.”

Ta’rif made it’s way into Medieval Latin and from there into many of the romance languages.  In Italian it was tariffa and it was used in english for the first time in 1591. The earliest written use of the word according to the OED was to describe a table used to keep track of soldiers and their rank. It wasn’t until a year later that tariff was used in it modern sense.

The current sense in which the word tariff is used it refers to a list of duties or fees to be charged on imports or exports to or from a country. It’s essentially a sales tax on the use of ports when particular products are being shipped.

In the United States the idea of a tariff was so important that it was the second act passed by the first United States Congress on July 4th 1789. The constitution at the time didn’t include a provision for a direct income tax. Seeing as the revolutionary war was primarily fought over taxation it was reasonable to avoid having the Government taxing the people directly. The indirect taxation of a tariff was a great compromise. Section 1 of the Tariff Act of 1789 explains what a tariff is generally expected to accomplish:

“Whereas it is necessary for that support of government, for the discharge of the debts of the United States, and the encouragement and protection of manufactures, that duties be laid on goods, wares and merchandise”

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