Posted by: captainfalcon | February 23, 2010

Slippery slopes

I just reread Eugene Volokh’s “Mechanisms of the  Slippery Slopes.” He provides a helpful taxonomy of the ways in which a change for the better can lead to a state of affairs worse than the status quo ante. The whole thing is worth a strategic skim (I’d recommend the first eleven pages, then dabbling in sections V and VI), but this gives a sense of how subtle slippery slopes can be:

There is probably a better way to insert a blockquote.

Volokh readily admits that not all these mechanisms are likely in the case at hand; “in the registration-to-confiscation scenario, only the latter two mechanisms are fairly plausible; in other scenarios, others may be more plausible.” And, elsewhere, he goes into greater detail about how the mechanisms might work. Three, especially interesting, explanations:

First, he notices the “normalizing power of the actual:” that, as a matter of sociological fact, people tend to accept as legitimate whatever is widely practiced in their society. In this way regulating guns might make people more likely to regard gun regulation as appropriate.

Second, he speculates that groups gain political momentum because politicians rely on a self-fulfilling heuristic. If lobbyist A scores a legislative victory, then politicians assume lobbyist A represents a powerful force. They are more willing to defer to A. A scores more legislative victories. We have positive feedback loop.

Finally, another way implementing policy A might lower the cost of implementing policy B, is that people might have “multi-peaked preferences.” This isn’t easily illustrated in the regulation-to-confiscation scenario, which is probably why Volokh doesn’t try to illustrate it there, but it is well-illustrated by a libertarian approach to gay marriage. Boaz would prefer the State not to confer any benefits on those who are (functionally, anyway) married. But, if the State confers benefits on some who are functionally married, then he’d prefer it to confer them on all who are thus. His first preference is for privatized marriage. If privatized marriage is too costly to implement, though, then his second choice is for the government to recognize all marriages. So government recognizing some marriages lowers the cost of its recognizing all marriages (as compared to its recognizing no marriages). Because Boaz’s preferences are multi-peaked – recognize none is higher than recognize some, recognize all is also higher than recognize some – implementing the middle policy leads to a slippery slope.


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