In 1991, the economist Albert Hirschman published a biting, funny and subversive book, “The Rhetoric of Reaction,” whose principal goal was to provide a kind of reader’s guide to conservative objections to social reform. Hirschman wanted to demonstrate that such objections are pervasive, mechanical, routinized and often unconvincing.
Hirschman used the words “perversity” and “futility” to describe his best examples of reactionary rhetoric. Conservatives often object that reforms will turn out to be perverse, because they will have the opposite of their intended effect. For example, those who oppose increases in the minimum wage contend that such increases will worsen unemployment and thus hurt the very people they are intended to help -- a clear example of perversity.
Alternatively, conservatives argue that reforms will do nothing to solve the problem that they purport to address. For example, those who oppose gun-control legislation contend that such laws will fail to decrease gun-related deaths -- a clear example of futility.
Hirschman agreed that such arguments are sometimes right, and he emphasized that progressives have routine rhetorical moves of their own. But his primary goal was to try to inoculate people against arguments that, while seemingly forceful, come out of a kind of reactionary’s playbook, and that shouldn’t be accepted until we have scrutinized them.
Illuminating though it is, Hirschman’s account misses an especially pernicious example of the rhetoric of reaction: the slippery-slope argument. According to that argument, we should reject Reform A, which is admittedly not so terrible, because it would inevitably put us on a slippery slope to Reform B, which is really bad.
Examples are all around us. The federal government shouldn’t require background checks for gun purchasers because, if it does, it will be on the path toward banning gun ownership. The Supreme Court shouldn’t force states to recognize same-sex marriages because, if it does, it will have to require states to recognize polygamous marriages.
Barack Obama’s administration shouldn’t intervene in Libya because, if it does, it will turn the U.S. into the globe’s policeman, intervening whenever it likes. The government shouldn’t require people to buy health insurance because if it does, it will eventually require people to exercise and buy broccoli.
The problem with slippery-slope contentions is that despite their occasional rhetorical force, they are often silly. To appreciate the problem, it is important to see that these arguments come in two quite different forms. Some versions are purely logical. The claim is that if you undertake Reform A, you are logically committed to Reform B, as well. Other versions aren’t logical but empirical. The claim is that if you undertake Reform A, you will probably end up undertaking Reform B, as well, not because of logic but because of the likely unfolding of events.
As a matter of logic, slippery-slope arguments can be convincing. If you say you oppose racial segregation in public schools in New York, you are almost certainly committed to opposing racial segregation in public schools in Los Angeles.
In many cases, however, your support for Reform A doesn’t commit you to support Reform B. Those who believe that government shouldn’t discriminate against gay men and lesbians, and thus should allow same-sex marriages, needn’t think that the right to marry should be extended to polygamous couples. If you favor background checks for gun purchasers, you can also believe that the Second Amendment provides firm protection for the right to own guns.
When they claim logical necessity, slippery-slope arguments can be lazy. Reform B is often a lot different from Reform A, and with a little work, the difference is easy to identify.
Empirical slippery-slope positions aren’t self-evidently wrong. If the government requires background checks before people can buy guns, maybe it will be more willing to consider other restrictions on gun ownership. Maybe a humanitarian intervention in Libya will make the U.S. more likely to undertake other humanitarian interventions.
But the opposite could easily be true. After requiring background checks, the government may be more reluctant to impose other restrictions on gun ownership. One humanitarian intervention may well decrease the national appetite for other humanitarian interventions.
When opponents argue against Reform A by saying it will lead to Reform B, it is often best to assume that the slippery-slope argument is merely a rhetorical move. It isn’t the real reason they oppose Reform A. When they point to the supposedly slippery slope, it is only because they know a lot of their fellow citizens favor Reform A -- so they try to scare them by changing the subject and talking about Reform B instead. (Progressives, and not only conservatives, like to exploit this strategy.)
As the date of publication approached, Hirschman tried to change the title of his book from “The Rhetoric of Reaction” to “The Rhetoric of Intransigence.” His publisher dissuaded him, arguing that book buyers wouldn’t be attracted to the word “intransigence.” Fair enough, but it’s a good word. Slippery-slope arguments usually reflect intransigence. Let’s not be fooled by them.
(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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