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120 Working Paper

The Spread of Neoliberalism: U.S. Economic Power and the Diffusion of Market-Oriented Tax Policy

Mar 2, 2024 – Duane Swank


I offer an explanation for the widespread diffusion of neoliberal tax policies in the developed democracies. Specifically, I argue that the highly visible 1980s market-conforming tax reform in the United States, the late twentieth century's dominant political economy, creates significant incentives for adoption of neoliberal tax policies by decision makers in other polities. As such, I stress a dominant actor model of the diffusion of neoliberalism that is grounded in asymmetric competition for mobile assets and policy learning. However, while the incentives to follow U.S. tax policy are substantial, the relative weight assigned the costs and benefits of reform and, in turn, the pace and degree of neoliberal policy adoption by other nations is fundamentally contingent on features of domestic political and economic environments. I assess these arguments with empirical models of 1981-to-1998 tax rates on capital in sixteen nations. I find that changes in U.S. tax policy influence subsequent reforms in other polities; in the long-term, all nations move toward the U.S. neoliberal tax structure. Analysis also shows, however, that the responsiveness to US tax reforms is notably greater where linkages with U.S. markets are stronger, where domestic economic stress is deeper, and where uncoordinated market institutions are dominant. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of the present analysis for the volume's central questions: what are the central mechanisms driving the cross-national diffusion of neoliberalism and what is the relative importance of international policy interdependence and domestic political economic forces in shaping policy change?