McCarthy: Neoliberalism without Neoliberals


This paper considers the rise of defined-contribution (DC) pensions – such as 401(k) plans – in order to contribute to the debate about neoliberalism. It challenges the generalizability of two common accounts: the weak state intervention thesis, which argues that neoliberal policy change is driven by state retreat and deregulation, and the state-managed transition thesis, which argues that neoliberal policies are both enacted and managed through new regulations. In contrast, this paper argues that the development of the employer-based pension system between 1970 and 1995 is an instance of “neoliberalism without neoliberals.” A battery of regulations was passed between 1974 and the late 1980s that were intended to make the traditional system of defined-benefit (DB) pensioning more secure. However, this legislation triggered a business shift to 401(k)s. The legislation worked in such a counterintuitive way because of three factors related to changes in “the balance of class forces” in American society: (1) new laws increased costs or firms, with small businesses being hit the heaviest, (2) employment in the manufacturing sector, labor’s traditional stronghold, declined as a share of total employment, and (3) because unions were unable or unwilling to unionize emergent sectors of the economy, new businesses in them were not compelled to negotiate DB plans. In such a context, growing regulatory costs pushed many firms to adopt DC pensions for their employees. The outcome was a major policy shift, considered by many to be a defining feature of the neoliberal era.


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