The Slippery Slope

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

My father had a favorite saying with which was to excoriate me on the many occasions when I had misbehaved. “The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions”. He used this to chastise me for some bad behavior, but more importantly to give me guidance of the “slippery-slope” that I was on when I behaved badly. Although it’s been 50 years since his death his words have remained with me even though I’ve aged into a man who’s lived far longer than he had. It’s been my observation that there is truth to this cliche, yet it does represent a form of logic, the “slippery-slope”, which can often also be specious. When I read this New York Times Article: “Slippery-Slope Logic, Applied to Health Care” by Economist Richard H. Thaler, Published: May 12, 2012 , I was again reminded of my Father’s admonitions and began to think about the use of “slippery-slope” logic. As it relates to SCOTUS and health care Mr. Thaler’s critique of the “slippery-slope” logic being applied by Justice Scalia did ring true:

“Consider these now-famous comments about broccoli from Justice Antonin G. Scalia during the oral arguments. “Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food,” he said. “Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.” ”

 Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym.”

 “Please stop! The very fact that a slippery slope is being cited as grounds for declaring the law unconstitutional — despite that “significant deference” usually given to laws passed by Congress — tells you all that you need to know about the argument’s validity. Can anyone imagine Congress passing a broccoli mandate law, much less the court allowing it to take effect?”

These are excepts from Mr. Thaler’s article. His short column is well worth reading for his examples of the problem with “slippery-slope” logic. My piece though, is neither about health care, nor SCOTUS. I’d like to explore the question of the validity of “slippery-slope” arguments that have been commonly used in public discourse and whether we would be better off as a society if we ignored them.

Religious Fundamentalists in America have long been obsessed with what they define as loose morality leading our country down the “slippery-slope” towards becoming Sodom and Gomorrah. The long history of American Laws passed regarding sexuality all had this theory as their basis and as their justification. I can remember many years ago hearing some politician making the argument that if we legalize homosexuality we will stop producing children and die as a society. Presumably his premise was that legalizing Homosexuality would cause everyone to become Gay, because that was the more attractive and compelling lifestyle. Those who would prohibit the use of birth control are really also expressing the “slippery-slope” attitude that birth control inevitably leads to promiscuity, which will leave us with an immoral society.The arguments made against a social safety net have been in essence arguments that such a “net” will inevitably and indeed has already, made people lazy. The “slippery-slope” has been the lynchpin argument of conservatives and libertarians about the initiation of any government program since it will inevitably lead down the “slippery-slope” towards socialism and/or bankruptcy. Probably one of the great, yet little remarked upon, injustices in our country’s history came in the form of the “Orphan Trains”.  Immigration, westward movement, the Civil War and children born out of wedlock were perceived to be problematic to the country. The idea of public assistance for children, such as the AFDC grants we have today, were perceived at all governmental levels to be destructive to the “work ethic” and would follow the inevitable “slippery-slope” down to the creation of a society with a “lazy” underclass. The mechanism developed and championed by the nascent Children’s Aid Society was the “Orphan Train” :

“Between 1854 and 1929, an estimated 200,000 American children—some orphaned, others abandoned, all in need of families—traveled west by rail in search of new homes in a novel ”placing out” movement.”

“The intent of the program was not adoption as it’s now known but foster care. Families acted from various motives, and not all children who rode orphan trains found happy homes. Some suffered abuse, were treated like hired help or were never fully accepted. Officials knew that placing out was imperfect and did what they could to screen inappropriate families.”

In lieu of establishing a program for assistance of children in need on a localized basis, children were shipped off in trains heading west, stopping at various locations, so that local farmers and industrialists could “adopt” them to work on farms and factories. Thus a “slippery-slope” towards destruction of the “work ethic” and reward for “immorality” was avoided.

The “grand slippery-slope” argument in our politics is of course regarding the role of government. Conservatives and libertarians argue that we must reduce the role of government lest we destroy Capitalism and become Communist Demons. Thus every attempt at improving the lot of the poor, bolstering the middle-class, or even fixing our decaying infrastructure, is railed against as leading us down the “slippery-slope” of Marxist deviltry. Such is his fear that the infamous Grover Norquist wants to shrink government to the size “where it could be drowned in a bathtub”.

Yet I must ask is a “slippery-slope” argument always ill-founded? I could argue that the initial U.S. assumptions about the “Cold War” led our nation to the point where we have become the “Empire” that our Founding Fathers warned about. Those who objected to our aggressive “Cold War” policies were ridiculed for their fears of the “slippery-slope” towards nuclear destruction, chastened by an opposing “slippery-slope” argument, or simply called Communists. Those initial actions to protect against the threat of communism put us on a “slippery-slope” where our defense budgets have drastically increased, our foreign involvement in wars of choice has become decades, rather than years long and our security agencies are now operating against American citizens. This was all driven by the internal logic of our “Cold Warriors”, with a lot of opportunity for personal profit thrown in and with the threat of a “slippery-slope” that would lead to our country’s destruction. Despite the Reaganite claim that it was their foreign policy that lead to the end of the USSR, the truth was it was the communists own internal problems, rather than a threat from the US and NATO.

However, I remember huddling against the wall in my Elementary School practicing to save myself in the event of nuclear attack. Even at those tender ages I fully understood that huddling in the hall wouldn’t save me if an H-Bomb or two exploded in New York City. These “safety drills” were merely exercises in propaganda, used to convince us that the “Commies”, our implacable foes, would destroy us if we didn’t beat them to it. The entire 11 years fighting in Viet Nam was the result of the famous “slippery slope” gambit of the “domino effect”. Now, thirty-seven years after the Vietnamese beat us, we engage with trade with them. The “Domino Theory’s” false “slippery-slope” logic never took effect.

Are we always then to disparage “slippery-slope” logic? Perhaps there are instances where the “slippery-slope” has validity, but I’m personally hard pressed to come up with them, except in the cases of erosions of our civil liberties. From a civil libertarian view every instance where a book is banned for salacious content; a non-harmful sexual act between consenting adults is prohibited; extra-constitutional tactics to fight purported terrorism are instituted; the rights of a minority are limited; the introduction of religious beliefs into the public sphere is put into effect;  and so on is an embarkation down the “slippery-slope” towards the destruction of our freedom.

The attack of 9/11 led us down the “slippery-slope” of anti-terrorism inexorably towards two wars, police state tactics, the interference of intelligence agencies in our private lives and assassination. Curtailment of civil liberties in almost any form can lead down a “slippery-slope” towards oppression. Perhaps these concluding words from Mr. Thaler, in the above referenced article give some clarity:

“More generally, we would be better off as a society if we could collectively agree to ignore all slippery-slope arguments that aren’t accompanied by evidence that said slope exists. If you are opposed to a policy, state your case based on the merits — not on the imagined risk of what else might happen down the road. The path of that road is so unpredictable that it may even produce a U-turn.”

What do you think?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

57 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope”

  1. @DigitalDave: I disagree. the slippery slope means that IF I accept your reasoning on outlawing X (for example pot smoking) then if that reasoning applies without any modification to Y and Z then we have to outlaw them as well. Or, vice versa for allowing government to require something.

    The slippery slope is legitimately used to criticize poor reasoning that if universally applied would justify ridiculous things. In mathematics, this method of proof is called reductio ad absurdum; it means “reduced to absurdity.”

    It is not legitimately used when it ignores critical aspects of the original logic. For example, it does not follow logically that if we allow two consenting homosexuals to marry, that this is a slippery slope to people marrying their pets or adults marrying children. The same logic does not apply, neither pets nor children are capable of such consent.

  2. I am saying that the “slippery slope” means “I disagree, but I cannot simply refute YOUR arguments with MY arguments”. So, instead I will change the topic to a different but similar question, and force YOU to defend the indefensible side of THAT question.

    Yes, a good this is a good thing — A is A. But, if A is like B, then I can persuade people that A is bad becuase B is bad. Sure, A is not the same as B, but similar enough if you squint real hard.

    For instance, giving a glass of water to a thirsty man is indeed a good thing, but drowning him would be bad. Therefore we must not give him a glass of water. See? Such arguments only come from people who didn’t want to give away that glass of water in the first place.

  3. @DigitalDave: I am not sure how that applies. You do need water to live, but too much water will dilute your blood so much it can kill you. You do need food to live, too much of it will make you obese, cause you pain, and make you live a shorter life. There are many medicines and vitamins and even activities that will let you live a longer and healthier life but can harm or kill you in overdose or excess.

    The idea that too much of a good thing is a bad thing is not bad logic.

    Saying “thus good things are bad things” IS bad logic.

  4. Slippery Slope == “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, thus even good things are bad things, thus even though your logic is sound and your arguments are convincing, nonetheless we will be doing things my way.”

  5. I would still contend that WW2 was a major event enabling, establishing, and a cast in iron step, however but not a slippery slope.

    Abandoning our constitutional limited form of power delegation was such a slope, because it opened the Pandora box of laws adopted with simple Congressional majortities which did not exist before.

    This “reform”, this departure from the requitement was a slippery slope in that it becaume more exercised as time progressed. That and the Lippman “creation of consensus” and propaganda as a science before WW1.

    Of course, our RWA tradition is the original “slippery slope”, the most basic of all.

  6. So there is no slippery slope? Tell that to Bloomberg in New York, who is going to outlaw drinks larger than 16 ounces. Is broccoli not far behind?

  7. @Malisha: WW II was pretty much a political continuation of WW I, interrupted by the Spanish Flu for a generation. However, WW I did not militarize the entire USA down to women working in factories (where they had never been) and elderly people growing half the nation’s food in victory gardens. WW II was an existential fight, if Hitler won Europe and Russia, with Japan, Nazism really was going to rule the world, and the USA would eventually be overrun.

    WW I did not let the military-industrial complexes take over the USA, that was evidenced by the great depression and the New Deal, trust busting, massive reforms, social security, and common-citizen oriented government. (still unfair to women and minorities, but that would have gotten better I think).

    It was WW II that created the secrecy-oriented government, a giant military and giant industrial system. Out of necessity, at the time, but once power is ceded it is exceedingly hard to make the powerful surrender it. Plus, the fact that we won the war made most of the men in the country admire and respect the militarized government, it was seen as a working model for the country that should continue. After Truman they elected a war general, Eisenhower, for eight years. WW II vaulted America into world leadership, and the devastation of the war everywhere but here made us the economic leader as well and that really cemented the militarized government, and those industries making bank on it, in place. It is why Eisenhower warned us against the unwarranted influence of the “military industrial complex” in his farewell speech.

    This country has been a victim of its own success; we made fundamental political changes to win WW II, and we never could change back.

  8. Malisha: “I don’t know anything about economics.”


    When the price of grain goes up,
    the price of bread goes up.
    When the price of grain goes down,
    the price of bread stays the same.

  9. Tony C, I would do the same, eagerly. And over the years I met probably a thousand devoted, highly qualified providers in the Public Health Service, and they were all in it for the value of what they were doing, and they weren’t filthy-rich but they did well enough and supported their families nicely. They were also a concerned, active bunch of people who made up a little subculture of the intellectually curious and morally responsible — how I wish they were representative of the larger culture!

    Probably “profits” does not even include their salaries, or providers’ salaries in the private sector. I don’t know anything about economics. What I remember is the doctor telling the plenary meeting that the insurance company basically drained off 40% of the profits in the entire industry. She made a point of saying that included the drug companies. Naturally, we were all appalled as we ate our rubber chicken lunches.

  10. @Malisha: I’m not sure “profits” are the right way to describe the income of doctors, nurses, medical equipment techs, orderlies, attendants, pharmacists, janitors, etc.

    In any case, I think we would have plenty of doctors if we paid them the same (with benefits) as our military doctors, or 20% over that or something. I met my wife while we both worked in a large hospital, both that experience and the national stats on M.D. income do not suggest M.D.s are gold-diggers in it for the money. They are well paid, but $180K or so is enough annual salary to get all you need.

    The same is true for administrators, using a different line of logic. Our top civil servant wage is about $200K for people that manage thousands of people (including our top military generals); you do not have to pay CEOs millions of dollars to manage. Some people are very happy with financial security, secure benefits, and knowing they are serving their country and doing good.

    I would just put private insurance out of business, if I could. Or turn it into a controlled profit public utility; with limits on total compensation and profits.

  11. @idealist: Was it a slippery slope that change[d] our society,

    I do not think so, I think it was Hitler. I am quite serious about that, I think WW II really was an all-or-nothing fight, and demanded an autocratic militarized control by the government, and they simply never let go of the power, and we did not demand it. The CIA was formed in the 1945-47 era, complete with the idea of unaccountable secrecy and extra-judicial rights of assassination, rendition, and other forms of using criminal means to achieve governmental ends, like bribes, hit men, and hiring actual criminals to engage in criminal acts with desirable political outcomes.

    WW II is what changed our society, it launched the military-industrial complex that morphed into the current corpocracy that still controls us. The events of 9/11 refreshed, for a new generation, the existential fear that enables and excuses the same kind of autocratic control, secrecy, and violations of civil rights.

    It wasn’t a slippery slope, it was WW II, a credible, frightening threat of annihilation and the end of our country.

  12. I heard from an official of the US Public Health Service that in 2000, insurance companies were making 40% of ALL PROFITS being made in the entire health care industry. That’s 40% of all profits including profits made by doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, yada yada yada. ALL OF IT! She claimed, also, that the figure was understated because they “redefined” some of their profits as expenses.

  13. Sweden ‘capped’ all profits of private insurance organizations at 5%.
    They must attract customers with ‘good service’, imagine that.

    Obamacare caps insurance corporation profits at 20% (each insurance company must pay out 80% of premiums or give a rebate)

    Not quite as good but definitely on a slippery slope to getting there.

  14. This slippery slope stuff is as economics: mostly concerned with stuff you can’t prove by repeat experiments with natural phénomena.

    But it is still rewarding to speculate. I have no conclusions, but offer a document which is decidedly partial.

    But it shows the slippery slope he says we entered when we left the requirement that all expansions of federal power must be enabled by amendment to the constitution, as was the case until not so many years ago.

    I hope some bright minds here take a look, summarize their view, and let us know.

    As it is now, the Congress by itself can mandate any power it wishes to the federal government. And SCOTUS, which according to him, had a responsibility to immediately review for constitutionality all new laws before implementation, no longer has that charge.

    Unreigned central power and abdication of responsibility to counterbalance the other two branches are our problem. Or why we are where we are.

    Was it a slippery slope that changes our society, and which seems more slippery for each day that passes?
    Where will Obama end up on the civil rights issue. What supervision and surveillance comes next. There are many issues connected to the expanded law-making capability.

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