Philosoblogger Jim discusses slippery slopes today:

It is obviously an unjust society that lets cripples and children die of starvation and exposure. I don’t see how that is a misuse of the term “unjust” in ordinary usage. (I’m not arguing all of the unfortunate can be helped, that’s Paul Wellstone-ism, not my view.

No one has ever shown that the slippery slope to socialism exists. You can imagine slippery slopes anywhere. “One drink, and you’ll inevitably become an alcoholic.” “Give the state the power to imprison citizens, and it will eventually imprison people arbitrarily, en masse, with no justification.” America doesn’t let cripples die, and it still isn’t socialist. We use reason and debate to stop ourselves from slipping.

The argument is certainly not respectable as he puts it. In my family we used to call it The Fatal Glass of Beer Theory, after a W.C. Fields short whose plot you can imagine. It is easy to do something in moderation; people, and even governments, manage it all the time.

Slippery slope theorists, however, rarely make the argument in this bald form, and if they do it isn’t really what they mean. They are asking for a principle, an intellectualy tenable distinction, something beyond “less” and “more.” One can drink so long as it doesn’t seriously impair one’s ability to function. The state can imprison people so long as they have violated the rights of others. The state can seize assets from its citizens to keep cripples from dying so long as — well, this time it’s not so simple. To ask for a distinction between seizing assets to help some of the unfortunate a little and seizing them to help all of the unfortunate a lot — between Jim’s position and “Wellstone-ism” — seems to me a perfectly respectable demand.

(Update: Jim answers.)

(Another: Eugene Volokh has posted a draft of his forthcoming Harvard Law Review article on this very subject.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted January 23, 2003 @ 2:28 PM | Philosophy,Politics

7 Responses to “Slippery Slopes”

  1. 1 1. Alan Sullivan

    Philosoblog’s comment functions appear to be disabled at the moment. I was going to grumble at Jim some more. If there’s a "sweet spot" for welfare, does he believe in the Laffer curve?

    Hope he gets his site fixed. Blogspot…ugh!


  2. 2 2. Michael Krantz

    Aaron, a response to Ryan’s "sweet spot" argument? What is democracy, after all, if not a society’s endlessly self-correcting search for any number of sweet spots?


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    Alan: I believe in the Laffer curve, and so, I bet, do you. There is surely a tax rate below 100% that maximizes revenue. Not that that is any justification for treating people like revenue sources for an omnipotent government.

    Michael: I answered Jim in the comments on his site, which you will see when Haloscan decides to let you. However, I will reprise it here. How do you know that so-and-so is an alcoholic, or that so-and-so ought to go to jail? You know, I submit, because you know, approximately if not exactly, what “seriously impaired” and “violation of rights” mean. That is, you take refuge in the very principles and distinctions that I’m demanding. The fact that these distinctions do not eliminate every borderline case does not obviate the need for them.


  4. 4 4. Alan Sullivan

    Yes, I do. But I’ll bet Jim doesn’t.


  5. 5 5. Jim

    Take it easy, Alan, I’m a Republican in favor of cutting taxes and making welfare more austere (and better targetted). I’m no economist, but I accept the Laffer curve. It follows from first-semester Calculus. It’s a necessary truth.

    We on the right but standing to the left of hardcore economic libertarians, do in fact exist. I assume most Republican Congressmen are in favor of maintaining some minimal welfare net. They’re not pinkos who laugh at Laffer curves and want to raise your taxes.


  6. 6 6. Alan Sullivan

    Guess I lost that bet. Good thing I didn’t put any money on it…

    If you’re OK with the Laffer curve, then we can seek the "sweet spot" on the slippery slope till the cows come home. Instead of debating the social(ist?) obligations of democracy, let’s consider the founding document of the Republic. I think social welfare ought to be strictly a local or state matter. It should not rise to the federal level. As far as I’m concerned, the whole apparatus of the welfare state is unconstitutional. I won’t take Republicans seriously as conservatives until they acknowledge and press this point.


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