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Slippery Slope Arguments: Not Just for Conservatives Anymore

Getty Images/Carl de Souza

Cass R. Sunstein has thought deeply about the regulatory state both as a theorist and as a practitioner, and he also knows a thing or two about practical politics. Now, in response to the successful opposition to Senate legislation expanding background checks for gun buyers, he has proffered an interesting critique of the “slippery slope” style of argument notably on display in defeating the measure.

Sunstein wants to add the “slippery slope” argument to the three types of argument the late economist Albert O. Hirschman identified as characteristic of “The Rhetoric of Reaction.” Reactionaries, in Hirschman’s telling, frequently make their case against a proposed reform not on the basis of the merits of the reform itself, but on its imagined consequences: perversity (the unintended effects of reform), futility (the intractability of the problem and the insufficiency of the reform as a solution), and jeopardy (the reform itself risks upsetting some important  applecart).

Sunstein has a point: slippery-slope arguments don’t really address the merits of the issue at hand. As he writes: “When opponents argue against [modest] Reform A by saying it will lead to [undesirable] 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.”

Sunstein is careful to note that progressives are prone to resort to this style of argument as well. But he seems to view such occurrences as somewhat out of character for progressives, but very much in character for conservatives. Reactionary=conservative, no?

Not really. A liberal staunchly opposed to a ban on late-term abortions on grounds that such a ban would open the door to additional restrictions on abortion rights is every bit as reactionary in defense of a status quo perceived to be favorable as a conservative who opposes broader background checks on grounds that more restrictions on guns will follow. Move to “chained CPI” for cost-of-living increases in Social Security payments? Absolutely out of the question for the Left, a first step toward dismantling the program altogether. (Here, it looks like Hirschman actually does have the “slippery slope” argument covered, in his category of “jeopardy.”)

To say that conservatives are more vested in the status quo and resist its reform by means of “the rhetoric of reaction” is to miss just how vested progressives are in the status quo of the administrative state, and just how they respond to “conservative” reform: not necessarily on the narrow merits of the proposal, but as an attempt to roll back hard-won gains. They may call conservatives reactionary, but that’s how they’re behaving themselves.

So it is that we find the rhetoric of reaction on both sides—though of course progressives tend to be more adept at calling it out on conservatives than vice versa, probably because conservatives are wary of legitimizing the charge of “reactionism.” Hirschman understood this, and as Sunstein notes, tried to change his book title to “The Rhetoric of Intransigence.” The publisher rightly resisted on the commercial merits.

But here’s the other thing about slippery-slope arguments. In a context in which your opponents actually do have a much broader agenda than the issue at hand and are pursuing an incremental strategy to advance it, the slippery-slope argument you make in response isn’t quite so fallacious. No, it does not address the merits of the matter at hand, whether that’s late-term abortion horrors or a reasonable inquiry into who’s buying a gun. The point is simply to try to shut down the pursuit of the broader agenda at the point at which it presents itself for political consideration. It’s based on the non-erroneous insight that many proponents of Reform A want to win on A not only on the merits, but also so they can move on to B, C, and D.

Defeating an expansion of background checks means that the fight next time will once again be about background checks—not the item on the gun-control agenda after background checks. That’s how you defend a status quo you like. It’s reactionary, but given the reach of the administrative and regulatory state these days, not especially conservative.