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Insurance Era

Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America

Insurance Era

Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America

Actuarial thinking is everywhere in contemporary America, an often unnoticed byproduct of the postwar insurance industry’s political and economic influence. Calculations of risk permeate our institutions, influencing how we understand and manage crime, education, medicine, finance, and other social issues. Caley Horan’s remarkable book charts the social and economic power of private insurers since 1945, arguing that these institutions’ actuarial practices played a crucial and unexplored role in insinuating the social, political, and economic frameworks of neoliberalism into everyday life.

Analyzing insurance marketing, consumption, investment, and regulation, Horan asserts that postwar America’s obsession with safety and security fueled the exponential expansion of the insurance industry and the growing importance of risk management in other fields. Horan shows that the rise and dissemination of neoliberal values did not happen on its own: they were the result of a project to unsocialize risk, shrinking the state’s commitment to providing support, and heaping burdens upon the people often least capable of bearing them. Insurance Era is a sharply researched and fiercely written account of how and why private insurance and its actuarial market logic came to be so deeply lodged in American visions of social welfare.

264 pages | 13 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History


Insurance Era brilliantly captures the power that insurance came to hold over Americans’ relationship to risk, security, themselves, and one another in the twentieth century. No other book better explains how and why the private triumphed over the public, and the individual over the collective, in recent American life. With great historical imagination, Horan has utterly recast the history of the postwar United States as the origins of our own time.”

Jonathan Ira Levy, University of Chicago

“History at its best raises fundamental questions: What is fair? Who is responsible for whom? And who gets to decide? Insurance Era is such a history, exposing the central role the private insurance industry played in answering those questions for twentieth-century Americans. As Horan shows, the industry used its huge capital resources to underwrite suburban development and drain cities of their tax bases; it shaped who had access to insurance, who was excluded from such security, and the consequences of that exclusion.  Most importantly, the industry conditioned Americans to think of risk pools as objective and apolitical, a matter of personal responsibility. We continue to live in this insurance era, but in uncovering its history, Horan opens a pathway to a more egalitarian vision of human community.”

Barbara Young Welke, University of Minnesota

“The insurance industry promised to provide Americans with much-needed security, but as Horan shows in this brilliant new book, its efforts only heightened the risk of individuals and deepened patterns of discrimination for marginalized groups, paving the way for the insecurities of the neoliberal age.”

Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University

"Recommended. . . Horan covers the insurance industry's evolution since the 1930s, a time when the public sector appeared poised to dominate the provision of insurance and an underexplored era in US risk management. . . . The book will therefore interest social, cultural, and business historians."


"A useful and timely account of the postwar insurance industry’s efforts to promote self-made security and the logic of actuarial fairness upon which that form of security depends. . . In keeping with much of the insurance and society literature to which Horan makes a worthy contribution, Insurance Era is thoroughly interdisciplinary, engaging with work by sociologists, legal scholars, and
political scientists."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The insurance industry has been a discrete yet powerful actor in modern capitalist societies. Insurance Era skillfully dissects its role in privatizing security, investing in the built environment, and reproducing discrimination in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s. It is a welcome addition to the field of American insurance history."

Enterprise and Society

"Horan makes an important contribution to a growing literature on insurance history. Insurance Era also makes a potentially dry subject come vibrantly alive by situating economic ideas in their cultural contexts and weaving legal and social theory into the historical narrative. Horan’s clear and beautiful language propels her readers through her deep dive into the archive of insurance operations and excavation of complicated actuarial concepts. Ultimately, she shows how private insurance taught Americans to conceive of themselves and others in actuarial terms, transformed the built environment, fractured social identities, and deepened socio-economic inequalities."


"In this book Caley Horan explores the marketing, investment, and underwriting practices of the insurance industry in the United States, with a particular focus on events after World War II. . . . Horan’s thought-provoking book asks a good question: what is the role of flawed experience rating in reinforcing discrimination, and how can the problem be fixed?"

Table of Contents


Part I: Selling “Self-Made” Security
Chapter 1: Insurance Marketing in the Wake of the New Deal
Chapter 2: “Facing the Future’s Risks”: Governing through Education and Public Service

Part II: Investing in Privatization
Chapter 3: “Public Enterprises in Private Hands”: Investing in Urban Renewal
Chapter 4: “A Mighty Pump”: Financing Suburbanization

Part III: Defending Discrimination
Chapter 5: “Communities without Hope”: Urban Crisis and Insurance Redlining
Chapter 6: The Unisex Insurance Debate and the Triumph of Actuarial Fairness

Epilogue: Imagining Insurance Futures



Business History Conference: Hagley Prize

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