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, 2012http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/business/economy/slippery-slope-logic-vs-health-care-law-economic-view.html , 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” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/horizon/nov98/orphan.htm :
“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