Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us



Fallacies of the Slippery Slope Argument
The author believes the "slippery slope" argument is often used to close off reasoned discussion on issues by raising specious fears in the electorate.

by H. William Batt, Ph.D.

About the Author

Bill Batt holds an A.B. from the University of Massachusetts and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the State University of New York at Albany. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand from 1962 to 1965. He has taught at several colleges before joining the staff of the New York State Legislative Commission on Critical Transportation Choices and the Tax Study Commission. Since 1992 he has been a consulting associate on matters of tax policy as they relate to transportation, land use and the environment. For a decade ending in 1997, he was also the founder and driving force of the Hemlock Society of New York, serving as a Board member and officer of the National Hemlock Society as well. He belongs to the Albany Torch Club.

Presented to the Albany, New York Torch club January 3, 2000.


During the height of debate about American involvement in Vietnam, the argument was frequently made that, if we didn’t stop the communists in Southeast Asia, they would be at the shores of California in five or ten years. The challenge to America, it was proposed, was to stop the initiatives far from where there would be any danger threatening to us, even at great cost, and even if the immediate threat to us was inconsequential. You will recall this as the “domino theory,”1 one of the prime arguments for American involvement in Southeast Asia.

We often hear opposition to a policy proposal because it approaches a practice that “down the line” we find abhorrent, even though there is nothing particularly offensive about the proposal itself. The English language is replete with metaphors about practices which, once started, will evolve beyond the capacity of our own control. We speak, for example, of chain reactions (here the reference obviously to nuclear energy), or of things being inexorable or inevitable once begun. The metaphors are usually mechanistic and from the physical world, even when discussing political, economic, social or psychological dynamics.

Consider some others which you will recognize immediately. We must be wary of “letting the genie out of the bottle,” or allowing “the camel’s nose under the tent,” or “opening Pandora’s box, “or “leading [anyone] down the garden path.” So we must “nip things in the bud,” because otherwise we will “open up the floodgates” and “if we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If you can think of others, let me know; I’m making a collection of them.

These are known in philosophy as wedge arguments.2 We’re hearing them more and more, perhaps because public policy matters are framed by politicians and pundits in sound bite format. Search “slippery slope” on the web and you’ll come up with hundreds of hits. The arguments seem, on their face, difficult to answer, even if we’re often nonetheless vaguely uncomfortable with them. What I hope to do here is to explore in an analytic way what in these arguments is sound and what is fallacious or preposterous. Some recent textbooks in logic have taken pages to analyze these patterns of thought — but how many of us have taken a course in logic recently!

In the realm of science and technology, from which most such metaphors are drawn, there is sometimes validity to this mode of explanation. Consider, for example, what has happened — or almost happened — at Chernobyl or at Three Mile Island! We see the same phenomena occur in the spread of disease and particularly now with computer viruses, which have so many of the same attributes as biological diseases.

The metaphor of the slippery slope itself comes of course from landscaping, where mud or grass is so slick that one is hopelessly lost once one has passed over the brink or the slide downhill has started. More about this later.

There are people who believe that the social world is just as determined and fated as the world of physics. But for the most part we live our lives on the daily presumption that we do have choice over matters and that we make choices as individuals and as a society. We believe, for the most part, in the free will of people. Few of us are doctrinaire behaviorists or determinists, and one is hard put to find many social scientists or philosophers that defend such approaches to explanation today. The behavioral sciences arose in an era dominated by assumptions of natural law and later of reductionist positivism, but philosophy has long since transcended the impasses which provided the underpinnings of early social science.

It becomes particularly remarkable, therefore, to reflect upon our reluctance as a society to confront certain policy matters because in the minds of some they would “open the doors” to other ethical choices down the line. We do indeed have choices, both as individuals and as corporate institutions. Yet rather than openly confront each dilemma incrementally as mature and responsible adults, many would close such matters from discussion entirely because it would “lead us down the garden path” to some forbidden or dangerous realm or other.

Creeping Socialism

Consider some instances where the specter of the slippery slope has often been invoked. We all are old enough to remember “creeping socialism,” the conservative bugaboo which we thought died after Goldwater invoked it to damn Johnson’s Great Society programs.

There was a time in this country’s history when the general public was largely incapable of distinguishing socialism from communism. The first great Red Scare was inspired by A. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General of Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to 1921 in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. With time this philosophy came to be thought of not simply as misguided but evil! F.A. Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, was a scholarly book, published by University of Chicago Press. But it became a manifesto of the right wing, a credo of a reconstituted 19th century economic and political liberalism, unfortunately without all the premises which accompanied early formulations of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, James and John Stuart Mill, and yes, the culminating champion of the classical economic tradition, Henry George. Ironically, this was an age that believed in human perfectibility!

Fears of creeping socialism were revived during and after World War II, leading to McCarthyism and destroying the lives and reputations of many artists, writers and other public figures, particularly in Hollywood. Certain organizations had a vested interest in maintaining confusion between the free-market social welfare state and state-communism. Hence, whenever programs of a social welfare nature were proposed — even to address those elements of an economy understood as “public goods” and “natural monopolies,” the specter was raised that a coterie of treacherous plotters sought to transform the “American way of life!” Adlai Stevenson’s comment summed up much of the final days of this era with his comment that “There’s something else I dislike just as much as creeping socialism, and that’s galloping reaction.”3 I thought the phrase had disappeared from the American lexicon, but a search on the web site turned up several recent articles and news releases, one from the Conservative News Service in Washington just this past March. According to that article, “The greatest threat facing the planet today is not AIDS, overpopulation or global warming but creeping socialism, according to a group of conservative women gathered in Washington, D.C. this week for an international conference.”4 Democratic governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina had his health care proposals met with the editorial comment that "It’s time to call a halt to the creeping socialism that threatens to destroy this nation one program at a time. If the goal is to provide health care for children, there are any number of ways to achieve that desirable end other than implementation of yet another income redistribution scheme.5

It appears that with the demise of the “cold war,” American politics is struggling to rediscover its philosophical moorings; conservatives, no longer able to invoke communism as a bugaboo, are reaching back to a pre-industrial era of laissez faire capitalism and the nightwatchman state. One new alarmist of the right is Balint Vaszonyi, a 1959 emigre from Hungary who by popular demand has become almost a regular on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Vaszonyi is an accomplished musician, the former mayor of a Midwestern city, and the author of America’s Thirty Years War: Who’s Winning?6 Emigres to this country from regimes formerly under the shadow and control of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba most notably, seem often to have attained unassailable credibility as political commentators. By their concentration in certain geographic areas they have managed to hamstring the foreign policy in this country in significant ways.

Witness most recently our government’s attempts to deal with Fidel Castro. Members of Congress from Miami have held high cards in this byplay. Government to them is not the protector of the public against rapacious private interests, or the provider of services when the market fails to deliver them. Rather government should be opposed at any and all costs. (This presentation was pre-Elian Gonzalez.)

Physician-Assisted Death

The debate about physician-assisted death offers another illustration. “Euthanasia,” taken from its Greek roots, literally means “good death.” And what person wouldn’t wish for a good death! Socrates’ taking the Hemlock was an exceptional case only insofar as the life he foresaw was not one of physical pain and suffering but rather the loss of his identity as a person. He was, after all, Athenian; to be banished from Athens deprived him of his selfhood, his dignity, and the relationships on which everything in his life depended. To lose his citizenship and be a “guest” in another city was too undignified and compromising. Such a life was worse than death, so at age 70 he chose to end it then. Crito, one of the students, offered to arrange his successful passage to the city of Thessaly, but Socrates declined. The Pythagoreans, a minority sect, opposed suicide, but a far larger element of the population accepted it. Herodotus, the teacher of Hippocrates, is known to have written that “when life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought-after refuge.”7 Thucydides, Cleanthes, and Seneca also chose to die by their own hand when their lives became difficult.

Many western philosophers have written in support of suicide, especially in the face of pain and suffering. In our own time Aldous Huxley, Henry Pitney Van Dusen, Peter Sammartino, and, yes, Jacqueline Kennedy Onnasis all chose to end their lives on their own terms. Many suicides result from the failure to find a doctor willing to quietly help ease the passage in the face of failing health and continued suffering, and the job is often then botched. Van Dusen, former president of Union Theological Seminary, ended his life together with his wife, but the drugs didn’t work immediately and their final demise was rather difficult. So also with Sammartino, the founder and longtime president of Fairleigh Dickinson University and the driving force for the restoration of Ellis Island, who shot himself and his wife in their New Jersey home. Hearing these stories shocks us!
The thought that anyone would ever choose — in any circumstances — to die rather than to live is deeply threatening to a sizeable element of our population. Despite polls that show that a full 75 percent would in certain circumstances condone physician-assisted death, even in fact choose it for themselves in certain instances, the debate has been muddied significantly wherever it has been put before the public. Physicians have quietly helped patients to die for as long as modern medicine has offered the choice, but many people believe that the practice should not be legitimized, or sanctified, in law. Better it be done quietly, that it remain illegal as a signal to all that such practices are not to be condoned by society as a general rule. Yet driving the practice under the table hides it from public scrutiny and invites abuse.

Nowhere more in recent history has the metaphor of the slippery slope been employed than by opponents of assisted death. It has been the most effective argument in thwarting the passage of laws authorizing such treatment. Ironically, most opponents of assisted death don’t employ the arguments that are most personally compelling for them. For conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews, and Roman Catholics, the matter is more about who decides — premises about the nature of society, about the relationship between man and God, and about the fallibility and vacillation of human will that are the most convincing. But these arguments are not employed in the realm of public debate, mainly because their advocates recognize their often religious grounding and that arguments before the public have to be made in secular terms, without recourse to particular orthodoxies.
The argument has been given newcolor by the recent appointment of Australian Philosopher Peter Singer to be the DeCamp Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Not since the appointment of free-love advocate Bertrand Russell to the faculty of City University of New York has there been so much hubbub in academia. The Right-to-Lifers have been there picketing daily for months, along with a disabled group called “Not Dead Yet!”

Steve Forbes, himself a Princeton grad who sits on the University Board, has carefully refrained from getting involved in this one so far. But he’s being pressed hard to take a position and get reversed the decision on Singer’s appointment.8 What is threatening about Singer’s ideas, well articulated in over a dozen books, is his view that quality, not simply the presence of a heartbeat, should define the value of a life.9 It is personhood — the sufficient condition of humanness, not the biological dimension which is only the necessary condition — that should be the mark of a human being. His book almost from the beginning provided a new philosophical foundation of the death-with-dignity movement. Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry is quoted on the cover of the hardback edition, “Brilliantly debunks old concepts and introduces honesty to modern medical ethics. [The book] is a blast of fresh thinking that will attract great controversy and debate.” Indeed it did.
In an earlier philosophic venture Singer already almost single-handedly launched the animal liberation movement,10 and he now was arguing that animals in some instances should be more highly valued than human beings. A graded continuum rather than a sharp line should define what kinds of lives have more worth. To many people, creationists apart, this has become the ultimate slippery slope! To them, if we’re not going to draw a bright line between human beings and animals, and venerate human lives in an absolute way, then we are indeed headed down a treacherous path. The argument about the validity of the slippery slope argument has never been more sharply posed than in the physician-assisted death and animal liberation movements. Yet it’s not as if he’s said things that other philosophers have not said earlier; it’s that he’s said them more clearly, more directly, and for a more popular audience. This mild mannered philosopher has now had to have armed guards when he goes about in public — a claim to notoriety paralleled only by Salmon Rushdie!

Gun Control

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” reads our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment. The Supreme Court decided in the 1939 case, U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, that possession of a firearm is not protected by the Second Amendment unless it has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia. The Supreme Court has stated that today’s militia is the National Guard. Does this mean that only for purposes of maintaining a militia shall the people have the right to bear arms? Or does it mean people shall be free to bear arms of any kind, for any purpose, at any time, in any place — beyond what any militia may require? We are beginning as a society to face up to the challenge of exploring the meanings, and indeed the wisdom, of the second amendment in a context very different, and with instruments very different, than the framers ever could have foreseen.

It may be wise that the Court has sidestepped earlier chances to further interpret the meaning of the 2nd amendment; after all, it has no means of enforcing a decision, and defining a law that can’t be enforced makes a mockery of government authority. Still, a consensus may be forming whereby a decision by the Court may be acceptable. Public opinion polls show that more than 80 percent of the general public is supportive of gun control laws. Many people wonder what it is about the American psyche that makes us want to fiddle so much with guns at all! Yet our witness of the passage of the Brady bill in 1997 was an illustration of how a relatively innocuous provision that would require the personal registration of handguns was vehemently opposed less on the ground that it was a questionably effective attempt to control the sale transactions of Saturday-night specials than as a first step in the dismantling of our Constitution, the first step by conspirators to establish a totalitarian dictatorship, and the first step toward the eventual confiscation of all firearms. Adherents are frequently heard on talk shows with the argument that Nazism arose only after guns were confiscated in Germany. We know the political power of the National Rifle Association, and its ability to mobilize its members to shower Congress with messages at strategic moments in deliberation. Interesting to me is the inability of our leaders to articulate arguments that stand up to the arguments of the NRA, arguments which, for the most part, invoke fears of the slippery slope.

Social Explanation and Determinism

The slippery slope metaphor is a form of an “if-then” claim: if X, then Y. Of course in mathematics and in formal logic these statements are ubiquitous. Even in the physical and biological sciences, research has given us a body of knowledge and theory such that deductive explanations are not only possible and enduring but necessary to our ongoing reliance in applied technology. But philosophers question the applicability of this so-called hypothetico-deductive model of explanation to the social world; in fact few if any would hold such views today. Yet, at the time when the study of societies first took on institutional form about a century ago in the form of various social science disciplines, so impressed were its founders with the successes of natural science that attempts were made to emulate what were seen to be its rigorous methods. Social sciences have never fully extricated themselves from these faulty epistemological premises and methodological assumptions.

Today we know that scientific research is not nearly so formal as such models proposed, and we know also that analogizing human behavior to that of protons or trees is a form of reductionism that ignores significant dimensions of human nature. The word “law” applied to human behavior has very different meanings than when applied in physical science.

Traffic laws are not like Newton’s laws. Human behavior is largely rule governed, rules which are made by human beings in their social capacity. Roberto Michel’s famous sociological “Iron Law of Oligarchy” is not testable in any empirical way, and is true only in the general sense that much wisdom of human experience acquires the nature of truth. Laws of behavior explainable by deterministic forces of nature are largely trivial in their importance. When they are employed, such as in game theory for example, they illustrate more often the dimensions of interrelationships by metaphor than by any inviolate deterministic patterns.

To be sure, such metaphors applied from animal to human behavior have achieved a certain popular fashion today, particularly in the works of people like E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.11 But it is notable that philosophers of social science have kept their distance from such works. Applying if-then models to human behavior is accomplished by essentially eliminating whole dimensions of humanness, and is reductionistic in its explanatory power. Human laws, rather, are human creations, and are mutable, tractable, and sometimes indeterminate.

Such an approach typically commits what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” and what others have often called the fallacy of reification. It is the mistake of attributing concrete existence to that which has only essence, that which has reality only in our minds. When human behavior is analogized and then concretized in mechanistic terms, it eliminates the element of choice and motive in our behavior. Although human behavior is largely rule-governed, the consequence of our being socialized and acting as members of a community and society, these rules are neither cast in stone nor inviolable. They can be both changed and disobeyed.

There is nothing inevitable or inexorable about one choice leading to another. It may in some instances have that effect — life goes on, after all, and “one can’t step into the same river twice.” But irreversible human choices are not the same thing as deterministic slides.
Yet we have to ask, doesn’t one thing lead to another? Of course. But this is not to imply there is a logical entailment between one event and another. The slippery slope metaphor asserts that social and legal policies, once put in place, lead inevitably and inexorably to other social decisions. Decisions in law or in politics are not made this way, when they are made at all. Rather they are made individually and incrementally, with great deliberation by any number of leaders reflecting general public sentiments. Anyone who has worked for political and social change in our society knows full well that it is inordinately slow. Decisions are checked and balanced, reviewed and revised so often that commentators far more often speak of “deadlock” and “gridlock” than they do of automaticity. There is seldom if ever any logical entailment at all between social events. No person who has ever worked in the arena of public policy would ever regard decisions and trends as inevitable. Only in one special instance might it be argued that there is ever the possibility of slippery slopes as applied to social decision-making: that’s in the judicial policy of stare decisis, or the recognition of legal precedent.12

Historical Perspective and Subjectivity

A second assumption of the slippery slope argument is that history is a down hill slide, that people in the past were perhaps stronger and more noble than we are today. Contemporary society, far from being the march of progress in this view, is just the reverse, and that social changes that mark turning points of history really usher in greater depravity. History is not progress but rather the fall from a golden age. One might note the fallacy of such thinking by using as an example the expansion of the voting franchise in America. At the founding of our nation, only white propertied males over age 21 were entitled to vote, but we have seen the expansion of this privilege to gradually include those without property, then to freed slaves, to women, and most recently to those age 18 and over. Or consider the evolution of medical treatment, or the expansion of educational opportunity. All slippery slopes?

Technological Dependence

An argument can be made, however, that in one realm of experience there is a linkage between one event or decision and another. This is in the realm of technology. We can all recall when it was touch and go whether 45 rpm records or 33 rpm records were going to become the standard, or when the VHS videotape format was completing with Betamax. We know what happens when one standard achieves a certain dominance: it soon becomes ubiquitous.

Economists describe the outcome of situations like this with terms like “system scale economies,” “entry barriers,” and “quasi-irreversibility of investment.” The monopoly dominance of Microsoft’s products may be another such instance. It has also been described as the QWERTY phenomena. As the story goes, a Milwaukee printer named Christopher Latham Sholes filed a patent for a mechanical writing machine in 1867, a project he labored over for six years without much success from keeping the keys from jamming. His machine had its type bars on the bottom, striking upward to leave an impression on the paper. This arrangement had two serious drawbacks. First, because the printing point was underneath the paper carriage, it was invisible to the typist. Second, if a type bar became jammed, it too, remained invisible to the operator. Sholes worked for the next six years to try to eliminate this problem, trying mechanical changes and different keyboard arrangements. In 1873, the Remington company licensed the design from Scholes, first using the name “typewriter,” and using the same keyboard layout that Sholes had originally designed. Remington changed the keyboard layout, but it was too late: the earliest typists had already learned to use the Sholes design. And we’ve been stuck with QWERTY ever since.13
Consider another pattern, which I also owe to a web site.14 The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates. Why did the English people build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Why did “they” use that gauge then? Because the people who built the trams used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts.

So who built these old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since. And the ruts? The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Thus, we have the answer to the original questions. The United State standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for Imperial Roman army war chariots which were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the back-ends of two war horses.

Some explanations reflect downright corruption. The earliest cars manufactured in this country and in Europe were electric; streetcars also were largely electric powered until a conspiracy of the automobile and petroleum industry exerted its force to ensure that fossil fuel powered motor vehicles would dominate our transportation and land use patterns.15 Our motor-vehicle-dependent and urban sprawl configurations can be explained by powerful interests continually pressing for policies to make us so. One might even conclude that the decision to drive on the right side of the road was equally as much a defining moment.

And I hope that you will forgive me for mentioning another great conspiracy in American history, the subject of my Torch presentation about four years ago. That story recounted how the American railroad industry, in collusion with the banks, induced the founders of the American economics profession to change definitions and formulas so that they would be relieved of taxation on their land holdings and speculation would be rewarded.16 This dividing line between classical and neoclassical economics is responsible I believe for many of our economic problems today — economic cycles, an inequitable tax structure, poverty and unemployment, urban sprawl and the gutting of urban centers. Only now is this economic ideology, almost sacrosanct for a century, falling apart and seen for what it is.

Determinism or Perception? But are these examples illustrations of a slippery slope? I don’t think so, because they are not decisions of social policy but rather of technical standardization or refinement. Perhaps even the evolution of firearms is an instance of the QWERTY phenomenon. One could argue that these latter were right or wrong, but that’s a separate question. Our views of social reality and its explanations are colored very much by our philosophies, and this is never more true than with respect to our evaluation of policy alternatives. If we are opposed to a set of policy alternatives, we are frequently likely to argue that their implementation is not simply a mistake of the moment, but one with irreversible and far-reaching consequences. We marshall all the evidence and arguments we can in opposition to these courses of action, and, since they are policy options for the future, we envision all the possible future problems inherent in their adoption. This is true both of the right and the left.

There is a difference, too, between explaining things historically and attributing unilinear causality to social events. As it happens, if our views of human nature and of social institutions are colored by pessimism and if we believe that we human beings are by nature self serving and rapacious, we are likely to have one view of matters. If, on the other hand, our view of human beings, both collectively and individually, is more optimistic and altruistic, our conclusions will reflect this too.

This has been borne out in several studies of personality and politics over the years. People with a dim view of human nature are more likely to see conspiracies and negative consequences to what is often perceived as social engineering. And people more trusting of others and of institutional authority are less likely to be concerned about the negative consequences of policy proposals. In recent years, those wearing the popular appellation of “conservative” — at least in the American sense of the term — are more distrustful of others, of government, and of institutions generally. There is a further corollary to this as well: that people who believe that human nature is inherently selfish will tend to believe that their own selfish behavior is only natural, and they will attribute the same low motives to others that they use to justify their own behavior.

This further reinforces their own view that they are completely justified in acting in the way that they do. Realizing that this is the mentality that drives such people, those who take a more benign view of human nature and of political institutions are then compelled to find the motives of their opposites suspect and threatening.17 So such escalating distrust becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
I would like to illustrate the dynamics ofthis thinking through one widely used psychological scale, used in countless studies over the course of some 40 years. It is known as the “Faith in People Scale,” originally developed in 1956 by Rosenberg.18 One point is awarded for each scaled response. A score of five identifies you as having a very low level of trust in others. I will read the five paired statements to you, since they are very short:

1. Some people say that most people can be trusted. Others say you can’t be too careful in your dealings with people. How do you feel about it?

• Most people can be trusted. • You can’t be too careful.

2. Would you say that most people are more inclined to help others, or more inclined to look out for themselves?

• To help others. • To look out for themselves.

3. If you don’t watch yourself, people will take advantage of you.

Agree     Disagree

4. No one is going to care much what happens to you, when you get right down to it.

Agree     Disagree

5. Human nature is fundamentally cooperative.

Agree     Disagree

So that’s what it may come down to, not to a matter of validity of the slippery slope argument as measured in logical terms, but rather by the extent to which social decisions are made by people who can be trusted and relied upon to act in altruistic ways. If people expect the worst, the worst may happen. If people look on the positive side, that trust may engender further such feelings and be self-reinforcing.“What goes around comes around,” as they say, applied to both conservatives with a dim view of human nature and society as well as to progressives with their more hopeful view.

There is a further dimension to all this which offers a fascinating area for study. The faith-in-people scale along with many other research instruments has been used in many societies and at various times. But time has been too short in this country for us to be able to say very much about what has happened over the past 250 years with respect to public sentiments. The general view is that people have become more cynical and pessimistic; what this portends for America’s future, and particularly the future of our political health, is well worth pondering.

We used to be a nation of optimists, at least as other nations saw us. That may have been our greatest asset. If we lose this optimism, we may be the worse for it as a nation. And to this extent, our declining view of ourselves and our motives may be the ultimate slippery slope.


I thought, because I just read it, I should add a postscript to this piece that shows how much the slippery slope metaphor has crept into our way of looking at things and affected our public policy formation. Here I quote from Saturday’s New York Times, relating the work of a Professor of Popular Culture Joe Austin at Bowling Green State University, whose book Taking the Train will shortly be published by Columbia University Press: [New York] City officials believed that if graffiti went unchecked it would signal a general lawlessness and more serious crimes would follow. This is sometimes called the broken-window thesis, popularized by James Q. Wilson, now a retired professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, and George Kelling of Rutgers University in a 1982 article in The Atlantic Monthly.20 “If you allowed one window to break in a neighborhood and it wasn’t repaired, people would think you can do other acts of vandalism,” Austin explained. “Eventually this would become, ‘It’s all right to mug and rape people,’ and a general sort of social chaos would ensue.”

The article goes on to estimate that the city spent about half a billion dollars between 1970 and 1990 trying to eradicate graffiti. By the mid-80’s most of the graffiti on the subway cars was cleaned up. Austin argues that crime on the subways during those 20 years did not significantly decrease. “The correlation between graffiti and crime had no basis,” he said. He pointed out that most experts don’t subscribe to the “broken windows” hypothesis, holding the economy to be the dominant determinant. But we did spend lots of money on a theory which had nothing more than plausibility behind it.

1 From Laurence Urdang (ed.), Picturesque Expressions: A Thematic Dictionary, Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980, p 52: “Domino Theory: The belief  that if one of a cluster of small neighboring countries is taken over by communism or some other political system the others will soon follow suit; the phenomenon of political chain reaction. This theory takes it name from the chain reaction effect created when one in a line of standing dominos topples, bringing the rest down, one after another. The concept arose during the 1950’s and was popular during the sixties as the expression most representative of the basis for American involvement in Southeast Asia at the time.”

2 Anthony Flew, Thinking Straight, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1977, pp. 103 ff. See also www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/slippery-slope.html; and www.loyno.edu/~wagues/fallacies.html.

3 Adlai Stevenson Quotes, at http://www.cp-tel.net/miller/BilLee/quotes/Adlai.html.

4 “Women Meet to Discuss Global Conservatism,” Washington: Conservative News Service, March 31, 1999.
5 “Health Care Plan Reeks of Socialism,”Jacksonville (NC) Daily News, March 3, 1998

6 New York: Regnery Press, 1998.

7 From the frontispiece, Derek Humphry, The Right to Die: Understanding Euthanasia, Hemlock Society, 1990.

8 David Oderberg, “Good Riddance to a Warped Philosopher,” The Age, (Melbourne), April 28, 1999; Gay Alcorn, “Life and Death Matters,” Sydney (AUS) Morning Herald, May 8, 1999; James Bandler, “Furor Follows Princeton Philosopher,” Boston Globe, July 27, 1999; Paula Span, “Philosophy of Death: Bioethicist Peter Singer’s Views on Euthanasia Foment Debate,” Washington Post, December 9, 1999.

9 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death, New York: St. Martins Press, 1994.

10 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethic for the Treatment of Animals, New York: Avon Books, 1975.

11 Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press, 1988; Consilience, New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998; Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford U. Press, 1990; Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.

12 Wibren van der Burg, “The Slippery-Slope Argument,” Ethics, Vol. 102 (1991): 42-65; reprinted in The Journal of Clinical Ethics, Vol. 3 No. 4 (Winter, 1992): 256-268.

13 http://www.superkids.com/aweb/pages/features/qwerty/qwerty.shtml

14 http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/ 2493/rails.htm

15 This is an untold story. A trial was held in a Chicago federal court in 1949, resulting in an indictment of GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Trucks among others. Their crime was in forming a holding company called National City Lines which proceeded in the preceding decade to buy up the public transportation services in dozens of US cities, and then scrapping them so that people would then become more automobile dependent. The corporations were fined $5,000 each, and the CEOs of each one $1. See United States Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, “American Ground Transport: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus, and Rail Industries,” by Bradford C. Snell, February 26, 1974 (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1974); and Jonathan Kwitney, “The Great Transportation Conspiracy,” Harper’s Magazine, February, 1981.

16 H. William Batt, “How the Railroads Got us on the Wrong Economic Track,” Torch Magazine, Spring, 1998, and www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/5148/batt_railroad_1.html

17 A particularly insightful treatment of this is to be found in George Lakoff, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

18 “Misanthropy and Political Ideology,” American Sociological Review, 1956, Vol. 21, pp. 690-695; reprinted in John P. Robinson and Phillip R. Shaver (ed.), Measures of Sociological Attitudes, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1969, pp.526-528.

19 Dinitia Smith, “Rethinking the Graffiti Wars,” New York Times, Saturday, January 1, 2000, D1.

20 See also George L. Kelling and Catherine M. Coles, Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities, New York: The Free Press, 1996.

To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

themes: see_also
Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen
Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper