The Real Slippery Slopes to Watch Out for

As argued in my last post I am not inclined to take slippery slope arguments seriously when they are not brought forward “in good faith”. But when those arguments are in good faith, I am more than willing to contemplate them. Usually, however, the slippery slopes in question are not very credible as empirical arguments. One example is the supposed slippery slope – involving gradually less respect for human life – triggered by allowing voluntary euthanasia. Another example is the slippery slope towards socialism – the “road to serfdom”, as F. A. Hayek put it.

The latter case is particularly interesting, since the slippery slope argument seems to be more credible the other way around. While we have not seen any democratic welfare state gradually turn into complete socialism (socialism/communism has always been achieved by non-gradual, non-democratic means), we see many examples today of slippery slopes away from the welfare state. And this is not hard to understand, since conventional wisdom suggests that it is much harder to raise taxes than to lower them, much easier to sell public hospitals, schools or housing projects than to buy them back (or build new ones).

One might say that the creation of the modern welfare state was the result of a rather special window of opportunity, rather than a slippery slope, whereas a return to laissez-faire might be possible as a slippery slope process. It is hard to build the kind of public trust that is necessary to maintain high taxes, but this trust is easy to tear down. Furthermore, tax cuts fortifies the economic power of the already rich elites and enables them to influence policies even more. Again, the slippery slope logic seems much more applicable to the gradual achievement of a “neoliberal” state, than a “socialist” state.

The environmental state of the world can probably also be described as a slippery slope process that follows the same logic as the case of the “degradation” of the welfare state. It is harder to gradually achieve the rigorous measures needed to save the planet than to simply stop worrying and wait for the flood. Again, the slippery slope towards environmental collapse is something that sits well with the rich elites, since if you are rich you can always escape the worst consequences of any disaster (unless the disaster is so complete that all titles of ownership become void). If we have to build an ark to ride out the flood, the best thing you can do is to make sure that you get a luxury cabin on board (while the poor are drowning, of course).

Another real slippery slope to watch out for is the gradual loss of democratic control over our states. While the achievement of democracy may have been somewhat more akin to a slippery slope process, it is nevertheless dependent on determined mass movements and political struggles. Once the latter elements disappear it is very likely that a slippery slope towards non-democracy begins. We see this today in countries like Russia. To prevent such a slippery slope in countries that are still somewhat democratic should be our first priority.

Are there any benign slippery slopes at work in the world today? Even though it may seem that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, it is probably the case that in the long run the process of secularization will continue. I think it was Thomas Paine who wrote (I’m paraphrasing form memory) that once you have thought something through, you cannot un-think it, meaning that once the process of enlightenment have begun, the forces of anti-enlightenment will constantly be on the retreat. Thus, I believe the slippery slope towards secularization, and even to agnosticism and atheism, will continue (although perhaps not in a completely linear fashion), unless something really radical happens in the world. Of course, some people would not regard this as a benign slippery slope. I believe they are entirely wrong when it comes to “fundamentalist” religion. When it comes to other kinds of “wishy-washy” religion, the case may be different, but that depends on many other factors that cannot be discussed here.


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