Journal of Public Policy

Research Article

Bringing the bureaucrats back in: neo-liberal tax reform in New Zealand

Johan Christensena1 c1

a1 Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute (EUI), Florence, Italy


New Zealand moved further in neo-liberal tax reform than most other advanced economies over the last three decades. The article investigates this extreme case to address the question of what explains major neo-liberal economic reform. Comparing tax policy-making in two periods, the 1980s and 2008–10, we argue that neo-liberal tax reform in New Zealand is best understood as the product of “autonomous bureaucratic action”. That is, bureaucratic organisations within the state independently formulated the goals and ideas for reform, took an activist role in policy-making and strongly influenced the policy preferences of ministers. Moreover, responding to a criticism often raised against state-centred theories, we offer an explicit explanation of bureaucratic preferences. We argue that bureaucratic goals and ideas were a product of how particular structural features of the bureaucracy – organisation and training – made ministries more or less receptive to new ideas within the economics discipline.

Key words

  • Tax policy;
  • neo-liberal;
  • state;
  • bureaucracy;
  • economic ideas;
  • New Zealand


c1 Johan ChristensenDepartment of Political and Social Sciences European University Institute Via dei Roccettini, 9 San Domenico di Fiesole 50014 Italy Tel.: +39 3271291322 Fax: +39 0554685201 Email: