• The slippery slope

    I’ve detested the “slippery slope” argument for as long as I can remember. And, I’m not just talking about disliking the argument when it is inconvenient. I don’t, for example, selectively dislike it in the case of the constitutionality of the individual mandate. I have always and in all cases disliked claims of a slippery slope.* But, I confess, it has been hard for me to put a finger on why.

    Andrew Sabl helps me out. Of course he is talking about the individual mandate, but I’m just using it to make a point about slippery slopes.

    Congress has had the constitutional power to make us buy broccoli for a very, very long time now, and it hasn’t—for the obvious reason that, unlike the Affordable Care Act, the broccoli mandate would be contrary to the public welfare, unenforceable, and wildly unpopular.  We don’t need to wonder whether politics is a sufficient check on dunderheaded mandates. The contrary proposition has already been tested and falsified.

    That’s it! Slippery slope arguments rely on an extreme out of sample extrapolation. They suggest that if we allow A to occur then A’ is not far behind, never mind all conditions to allow A to occur must also be satisfied for A’ to occur. Obviously A doesn’t necessarily cause A’ any more than the individual insurance mandate would cause a broccoli mandate.

    I can already hear the objection, “Precedent, what about precedent?” But that’s my point. Precedent is just one hurdle. It’s a valid element to an argument, I grant that. But it does not mean that all other hurdles are overcome. Again, just because A is possible/legal/permitted and occurs does not mean A’ follows. In fact, the harder it was to get A to occur, the far less worried I am about A’, precisely if A’ is somewhat like A. (Mandates = hard, for example.)

    You can claim a slippery slope, nay a vertical drop off, and I just don’t buy it. The argument goes nowhere with me, and never has.

    *I’ve just searched this blog. In well over 1,000 posts, I have never argued by appeal to slick, inclined planes.

    • Austin,
      Any process with a positive feedback loop creates the possibility of a slippery slope. Are those so rare?

      • @Bill Gardner – Dunno. Name some. Why don’t we call that part of the effect of A? That is, if A is inserted into a system such that it is clear (or even intended) that a positive feedback will occur, is that not what A does? In other words, maybe I would object that the result be called A’. One need not mention slippery slopes. Just tell me what A does, show me the feedback, and I’ll buy that.

        Slippery slopes seem to be invoked when A in fact does not obviously lead to A’ but the debater wants to raise the specter of A’ so as to defeat A. The mechanism by which A would lead to A’ is rarely even explained.

        What I’m saying is that often there are barriers that block A’ and were even hard to surmount for A itself. Therefore, A doesn’t lead to A’.

    • Well, a very commonly discussed example would be network effects. The more people use FaceBook, the more attractive FaceBook becomes, etc. On an individual level, if your motivation depends on the expectation of success, and you form your expectations from experience, and if success depends on motivation, then….

      Obviously, it’s an empirical question whether these hold. A slippery slope argument that lacks a positive feedback model (and evidence to support it) is, as you say, weak. The problem with the brocoli argument is that there isn’t a slope there.

    • My issue with the invocations of the slippery slope when they’re used to defeat arguments (“we can’t do this because then we’ll be on the slippery slope”) is that they frequently imply that one can’t walk on a slope that is slippery. Actually, we navigate them all the time, and the fact that we know they’re slippery makes us navigate them all the more carefully. How about this: we know that A could possibly lead to A’; we know that A’ is bad; let’s navigate our slope so as to avoid A’.

      • @Chris – Yeah, that’s how I thought about it in the past too (still do). I thought articulating how it is we so obviously avoid A’ (politics, interest groups, unpopular, etc.) added a bit more to it.

        But, like you said, saying we must be careful of the slippery slope is not argument not to walk down the hill a little. If you only stay on flat land you miss some really great views!