Slope-y Thinking

The current topography of the American political landscape seems to be made up entirely of hazards of one kind or another. We may have avoided going over the “fiscal cliff,” but, it appears, no matter which way we turn, we can’t avoid sliding down a “slippery slope.” Name a social or political issue, and there’s somebody out there warning that there is nothing to be done about it without sliding down a slippery slope.

On gun control

Consider Larry Bell, a Forbes contributor, in a post entitled “The Slippery Slope Of Gun Control: Time To Stand On Firm Ground”: “The choice for those who truly care, is either to stand passively by on the edge of a very slippery slope and watch legitimate rights continually eroded by floods of activists claiming moral superiority and ever-expanding executive privilege, or to stand defiantly, and aggressively defend them on sound legal grounds. Beware that while “reasonable compromises” proffered by gun control proponents may sound disarmingly well-intentioned, many of these are certain to establish precedents for private gun ownership restrictions which are literally disarming.”

Anthony Martin on Examiner.com, a division of Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media, makes the case, in a post entitled “Mental health angle in gun control leads to slippery slope”: “[T]he manner in which President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and other gun ban proponents approach the issue of mental health leads to a slippery slope that could result in millions of law-abiding, healthy citizens being prohibited from owning a firearm….Many conservatives have insisted that any plan of action to address this problem must begin with getting the severely mentally ill, as well as the criminals, off of the streets and into either treatment facilities or prison. But progressives take that simple premise and run with it to the point of the absurd. Using the broadest dragnet possible, progressives would pronounce anyone who has been treated for simple depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress, or obsessive compulsive behavior as mentally ill and thus prohibit them from owning a gun.”

On abortion rights

Whether you are “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” there’s a slippery slope that the other side is trying to push you down.

In a post entitled “Abortion’s Slippery Slope: When People Aren’t ‘Persons,’” Rebecca Hagelin argues that a fetus must be afforded the same rights as any child whose mother has given birth or else “[t]his is our future: an infant’s claim on life will be no greater than that of a pre-born child—non-existent.”

On the pro-choice side, by comparison, in a Daily Kos post entitled “The Slippery Slope of Informed Consent Abortion Laws,” Jessica Mason Pieklo argued that “informed consent laws” not only lead inevitably to transvaginal ultra-sounds and other abortion restrictions but ultimately to the end of women’s rights generally: “If women are unable to make fundamental decisions about their health and future without substantial ‘assistance’ from the state, can they make decisions about transferring property? Or electing representatives? It is not hyperbole to suggest a slide away from true agency in the context of informed consent for abortion leads to a slide away from true agency in other areas of the law where consent is required.”

Ms. Hagelin apparently thinks that, if we allow the distribution of morning-after pills, we must allow “‘after-birth abortion’—i.e., the parents can kill a child who is inconvenient, disabled, the ‘wrong’ gender, or simply unwanted.” Ms. Pieklo apparently thinks that, if we allow conservatives to impose any regulation of abortion rights, “there is no reason to think they will simply stop at curtailing reproductive rights.” Not hyperbole? Really?

On immigration

This is another area in where there are slippery slopes on both sides of the ideological divide.

Typical of the anti-immigration argument is this comment posted to a forum on the issue “Should illegal immigrants in the United States be allowed to obtain drivers licenses?”: “[I]f we allow illegal immigrants to obtain a legal license, why stop there? Next, we should give them the right to vote. And then allow them to get a bank account. That’s a slippery slope. An illegal immigrant will become so integrated into our society that deportation will become increasingly difficult. Second, by giving illegal immigrants a drivers license we are not only ignoring but AIDING the commission of a crime. That becomes an equally slippery slope.”

On the pro-immigration side, however, merely using the phrase “illegal immigrant” can send you down a slippery slope. In a post entitled “The Associated Press’ Developing, Conflicted Policy on the I-Word,” Monica Novoa writes: “Describing people as ‘illegal immigrants’ is a slippery slope to saying ‘illegals’ and in the end, people experience all of these related terms as dehumanizing and racially charged. It does not make a huge difference to stop using ‘illegal’ as a noun if the AP’s policy is to use ‘illegal’ as an adjective that describes the ‘noun.’ We are talking about human beings, not a set of actions.”

On marriage equality

Remember Rick Santorum and his argument that, if you let two people of the same gender marry, then you’d have to let three people marry? (“Reason says that if you think it’s ok for two, you have to differentiate with me why it’s not OK for three.”)

And Santorum’s position is not even the most extreme being advanced by right-wing politicians. Even the sanctioning of civil unions (forget same-sex marriage) is surely going to lead to the legalization of bestiality. A Rockford, Illinois politician explained that he was “dead set” against civil unions because they could open the door to “other things.” “Does this now say that somebody can get married to their dog?” he asked.

This argument is so popular on the right that it is being advanced by conservative lawmakers all over the world—and the slippery slope doesn’t just end with bestiality. One Columbian legislator argued that same sex marriage would inevitably lead to legalization of necrophilia and pedophilia. “Today in the world there are many countries where bestiality is practically a sexual preference for some, or necrophilia, or pedophilia,” he said.

On governmental power

Thomas Sowell, an economist who serves as the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, not long ago went viral with a post for Investors.com entitled “Is The U.S. Now on a Slippery Slope to Tyranny?” What outrageous act prompted Mr. Sowell to ask this provocative question? The fact that the government had somehow gotten BP to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the BP oil spill!

“Just where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that a president has the authority to extract vast sums of money from a private enterprise and distribute it as he sees fit to whomever he deems worthy of compensation?” Mr. Sowell asked, and then answered his own question: “Nowhere….[T]he Constitution says that private property is not to be confiscated by the government without ‘due process of law.’” Then he added, in the written equivalent of a sotto voce aside: “Technically, it has not been confiscated by Barack Obama, but that is a distinction without a difference.”

The fact that BP had agreed to the deal in order to make potentially devastating legal and public relations problems go away is also, I guess, a mere technicality. From Mr. Sowell’s perspective, the establishment of the BP fund was just another step, not the first (his fulminations take in governmental actions going back as least as far as Franklin Roosevelt’s administration), on the road to “unconstitutional” tyranny.

Mr. Sowell, it is worth noting, both begins and ends his column with references to Adolph Hitler. As Mr. Sowell demonstrates, this kind of argument can be applied to any almost any issue, no matter how tenuous the connection between point A at the top of the slope and point Z at the bottom. Today, the BP compensation fund, tomorrow the Reichstag. Hey, it’s a slippery slope.

The prevalence of the slippery slope argument is either one cause of the current paralysis in our political culture or a symptom of it, but, whichever it is, it isn’t helping. We need to stop resorting to this line of reasoning whenever we want to oppose a policy we don’t like. The fact is we have the ability to make distinctions that will prevent our slide down the slippery slope in almost every situation in which the argument has been invoked.

We can say we are going to regulate the private ownership of military assault weapons without applying the same regulations to ownership of handguns.

We can say we are going to allow abortions of fetuses without saying we are going to allow parents to take the lives of their children.

We can say we are going to have rules for certain undocumented immigrants that don’t apply to others. (Curiously, many of the people who refuse to make a distinction between a fetus and a child are more than willing to draw distinctions between, say, foreign engineers and doctors, on the one hand, and less educated immigrants on the other.)

We can say—and this one is almost too easy—we are going to allow marriage between two people without saying we are going to allow marriage among three people or between a man and a dog or between the dead and the undead (although legalizing the last would seem to be a boon to a lot of novelists and screenwriters).

We can allow the government to extract monetary damages from corporations that cause environmental disasters without allowing the government to simply expropriate private property whenever it wants to.

We have the ability to discriminate. We do not live in an all or nothing world, a world where, for example, no one should be allowed to have a drink simply because it might lead to alcoholism. Remember the commercial that taunts: bet you can’t eat just one. Well, they’d lose the bet because we can stop if we want to.

And the same applies to virtually every alleged slippery slope. It’s time to call for a moratorium on invocation of the slippery slope. This kind of thinking has got to stop because, if it doesn’t, who knows where it could lead?

About Lawrence Peitzman

Lawrence Peitzman is a lawyer in Los Angeles.
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