Conservatism is commonly defined as an ideology that tries to maintain the status quo. In this answer, it is defined as being anti-utopian, and thus, any government change should be slow and measured.

So, per these kinds of definitions of conservatism, the aim of conservatism should be to slow any change to the government. That is, rolling back or slowing down the implementation of recently passed laws.

How does this explain Ronald Reagans tax cuts of 1981? The top marginal tax rate had been above 60 percent for five decades at this point and above 70 for over four of them. He lowered the taxes from 70% to 50%, and phased this in over only three years. Macroeconomic effects can take decades to fully reveal themselves. Of course, since the US has presidential elections every four years, it's not feasible to wait even a decade to see what effects the tax cuts would have, but twenty percentage points is a big change that doesn't quite mesh with the definition of conservatism above.

From an economic point of view, this is the result of Reagan being a proponent of neoclassical economics. How do you justify, if you believe in the definition of conservatism above, to completely change to new economic policy?

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    for context, I'd look at Reagan as a (continued) reaction to reforms of the previous decade or so, some of which was new regulation by the Federal government, some being social (ie civil rights for minorities and women's rights), some involving the nation processing its self image and restoring it for some people, after VietNam challenged the image of benevolent foreign policy
    – Pete W
    May 23, 2021 at 14:57
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    you refer to 5 decades as though it's forever. What was the effective rate before that? Couldn't Reagan be seen as returning the status quo to an earlier time? The other simple answer is that it wasn't actually a conservative thing to do under the rubric of your specific definition of conservatism.
    – dandavis
    May 23, 2021 at 22:08
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    @dandavis the assumption isn't that fifty years is forever, but that it's long enough to become the new status quo. Before that taxes had been around 30, 80 and zero percent. So, I am uncertain which exact point he would want to return to.
    – Avatrin
    May 24, 2021 at 11:01
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    @Avatrin wasn't no taxes on plymoth rock, so to speak.
    – dandavis
    May 24, 2021 at 17:26
  • @dandavis there was no neoclassical, nor classical, economics back then either (Adam Smith lived during the 1700s). So, that doesn't hold. Conservatives are staunch capitalists.
    – Avatrin
    May 24, 2021 at 17:45

4 Answers 4


Conservatism isn't explicitly about preserving the status quo. It's better to think of conservatism as opposition to social and political innovation that might upset the hegemonic socioeconomic power structure. After the 1960s/70s, conservatives began to view the US government as an agent for social change, because of various civil rights laws, policies, and rulings that gave minorities and women more social and economic power. As a result, they decided that small 'non-interfering' government was optimal, to cut down on agencies that might enforce these new laws and policies. Slashing taxes was meant to cripple social services and institutions, making it difficult or impossible to enforce regulations that would shift more power and influence away from the traditional white male hegemony.

Don't underestimate the moral flexibility of conservatives. Remember that Reagan (when he was governor of California) instituted strong gun control measures (the Mulford Act), because in California the Black Panthers made a show of exercising their 2nd amendment rights. Reagan saw armed black protesters outside the state capital (similar to the armed white protesters we've seen recently in states like Michigan), and decided that gun controls were a good thing. However, he quickly reversed course once president, because nationally gun ownership is overwhelmingly white.

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    This is basically identical to Clint Eastwood's answer, and suffers from the exact same problems I outlined in my comment there. May 24, 2021 at 1:07
  • @JaredSmith: Sorry, I missed this comment when you wrote it. I dispute the idea that my answer is similar to CE's, and I dispute your response to him. You've confused conservatism with reactionary conservatism, which are quite different things. Jul 7, 2022 at 16:05
  • Not sure I follow you. You are arguing that conservatism is dedicated to maintaining a hegemonic socioeconomic power structure. AFAICT the other answer is making a similar case. I would counter that although a lot of conservatives are in for that reason, especially at the national political level, but that's also (although perhaps not equally) true of any other powerful group and that while it may be wrong there's a lot more to conservatism than that. I wonder if we're on the same page since "conservatism" refers to at least 4 different things: 1. a philosophy of governance ... Jul 7, 2022 at 16:37
  • 2. a political group that is a product of a confluence of some personality traits and accidents of history 3. People who subscribe to #1 4. People who are members of #2 5. People who are elected by #4 to represent them who may not actually be involved in 1-4. Along with the understanding that these are fuzzy categories with a lot of overlap. Nevertheless, I wonder if part of the disconnect is which part of the above we're talking about. Because e.g. #5 arguably fits your bill but e.g. #4 consists in no small part of working class folks currently ... Jul 7, 2022 at 16:37
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    Ahh, I gotcha. In that case the comparison is retracted. I'm not sure I totally agree with you, but given the explication I apologize and thank you for clarifying. Jul 7, 2022 at 18:52

I think there's a confusion here of radical means and ends. Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to radical changes that nonetheless orient society or government in a more conservative direction. Similarly, it's not like they'd support the imposition of radical policies just because they were being enacted in a slow or measured manner.

In this case, let's accept the proposition that Reaganonomics made a radical change to the U.S. tax policy. One of the intended effects of that change is to limit the amount of other radical changes that can be made in the future by limiting the amount of money the government is working with, or at least forcing future Congresses to own the tax increases. So the radical means would be justified by the long-term conservative ends.


I think the real answer to the question "How is Ronald Reagan a conservative, if conservatism means to conserve the status quo" is simply that he wasn't one. While the answer linked provides a reasonable definition of conservatism, it does leave a good deal out. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article that that answer itself cites has this to say:

It is contested both what conservatism is, and what it could or ought to be—both among the public and politicians, and among the philosophers and political theorists that this article focuses on. Popularly, “conservative” is a generic term for “right-wing viewpoint occupying the political spectrum between liberalism and fascism”. Philosophical commentators offer a more distinctive characterisation. Many treat it as a standpoint that is sceptical of abstract reasoning in politics, and that appeals instead to living tradition, allowing for the possibility of limited political reform. On this view, conservatism is neither dogmatic reaction, nor the right-wing radicalism of Margaret Thatcher or contemporary American “neo-conservatives”. Other commentators, however, contrast this “pragmatic conservatism” with a universalist “rational conservatism” that is not sceptical of reason, and that regards a community with a hierarchy of authority as most conducive to human well-being (Skorupski 2015).
— Andy Hamilton, “Conservatism”, para. 2

From that, it is clear that if you believe in the definition of conservatism in the narrow sense, of being anti-utopian and opposed to radical change, Ronald Reagan's tax cuts were not at all conservative. Instead, by the narrow, technical definition, Ronald Reagan was a "right-wing radical" much like Margaret Thatcher would be. Right-wing, because of the laissez-faire principles, and radical because it was a transformation of the fundamental principles of economic policy at the time, not because it would have been particularly extreme. Reagan is called a conservative because of the popular and generic definition, of "any right-wing viewpoint in between liberalism and fascism".

Reagan cut taxes twice in 1981 and 1986, true, but those cuts were mostly ineffective in curbing spending, and he ended up signing multiple tax increases and cancelling many cuts as a pragmatic compromise. [3][4] His increases in defence spending drove the budget deficit to balloon anyway. He failed to abolish the cabinet-level Departments of Education and Energy as he campaigned for, instead he created the Department of Veteran Affairs. [5] His overall record in terms of limiting spending is not that successful:

As Lou Cannon observed, Reagan's own friend George F. Will, a conservative, "calculated that the middle six budgets of the administration had produced deficits totaling $1.1 trillion and that Reagan proposed thirteen-fourteenths of that total. Congress had added a relatively insignificant $90 billion...."
— Robert Erwin, 2001, "Regan in Retrospect", p. 379 Virginia Quarterly Review 77(3)

The theory of "supply-side economics" used to justify those tax cuts as increasing revenue wasn't exactly a sign of great scepticism towards theoretical reason either, and opponents like George Bush famously called it "voodoo economics". [7] Nonetheless, Reagan's policies marked a radical transformation of the fundamental principles of economic policy, and only after Regan can those policies really be considered conservative, under the narrower definition.

  • What is profoundly conservative (in keeping with its defence of pragmatism, skepticism of utopian government proposals, and belief in freedom for the wealthy to enjoy their property) is the argument that the state shouldn't be embarking on large-scale spending programs, or trying to transform society with redistributive taxation, and should leave people to do what they like with their money on the basis that they and the market know best. Reagan certainly wasn't hugely conservative, and supply-side economics are dubious to say the least, but low taxation is consistent with conservativism.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 5, 2022 at 7:59

You are mistaken in your description of conservatism. It is not preservation of the status quo, per se. It is preservation of the power held by those in power from government weakening in favor of those with less power. Though conservatives would probably favor lower taxes for any reason, they needed to lower taxes to pull the funding out from under LBJs anti poverty measures and any remaining New Deal policies that remained, both of which elevated poor and minorities at their expense

  • Well, it's not my definition. The answer I cite essentially rephrases that definitions in better terms but keeps the gist of it. Also, your third sentence is confusing; Is it preservation of power by the powerful in government, or is it weakening of that power in favor of the powerless? It would be helpful if you rephrased it.
    – Avatrin
    May 23, 2021 at 17:07
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    Any group with power is going to attract people who are simply in it for the power and looking to sustain and expand upon it. That is no excuse for real evil done, and conservatism may be particularly vulnerable because of its philosophical commitments, but suggesting that's all there is strikes me as either inflammatory or facile. May 23, 2021 at 19:49
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    Re "...the power held by those in power...": this language is either redundant or unclear or both.
    – agc
    May 24, 2021 at 3:00

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