This kind of targeted tariff helped save Harley Davidson, for example. In the early 1980s, the company was losing market share to smaller, more affordable imports from Japan. Bankruptcy seemed a real possibility until President Ronald Reagan agreed to introduce a severe protective tariff.

Deliberately designed to be fast-acting and short-lived, the tariff started at a steep 49.4 percent before gradually falling back to the normal 4.4 percent rate over the course five years. In the end, it didn’t take that long for Harley Davidson to reorganize its operations, fix manufacturing problems and return to profitability. By year four, they felt secure enough that they actually asked for the tariffs to be lifted early (presumably because the tax had already fallen dramatically and because a show of strength was good PR).

To some observers, that turnaround might still count as a failure because the company recovered not on its own but with the help of regulations that, by their very nature, interfere with the free market, limiting consumer choices and putting upward pressure on prices.1 But clearly the tariffs accomplished their basic goal, blunting competition from Japan in order to give an iconic U.S. company breathing room to catch up.