Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Slippery Slopes and the Media

I spend a few weeks in every course discussing the various forms of logical fallacy. One of the argument formulations that I dislike is the "slippery slope." I tend to group the slippery slope with the domino effect, the contagion principle, and the cascade potential arguments. In each of these variations, the argument is made that defensible action X could lead to indefensible action Y. Generally, the slippery slope embraces hyperbole — or genuine fear/paranoia that the person or group proposing X cannot be trusted to resist Y.

Various examples include:
  • If the minimum wage should be raised to $10 per hour, why shouldn't it be $20 or $50 per hour?
  • If you want to set the speed limit at 55 mph for safety, why not set it at 20 mph?
  • If you want to regulate fat content in foods, why not ban all unhealthy foods?
  • If you want to legalize marijuana, why not legalize heroine or cocaine?
  • If you want to raise the marginal tax to 50 percent, why shouldn't it be 60 or 80 percent?
  • If you want to legalize gay marriage, why not legalize polygamy?

The "slippery slope" comes from all political directions, an equal opportunity absurdity. Sadly, the slippery slope and its siblings are common debate devices on cable news networks and in the various partisan media. As stated earlier, often this is a reflection of distrust, not an intentional misrepresentation. Paranoia is not logic, though, even if large numbers of people really do believe Democrats are socialists and Republicans are fascists, each secretly plotting to destroy the United States.

No serious Republican leader has suggested lowering tax rates to zero, but I've heard MSNBC commentators suggest just that. The slippery slope: Republicans want to lower business tax rates, so they must want to do away with all business taxes. (Many libertarians would replace our tax system with a sales tax, but that's not "zero" taxes.)

No serious Democratic leader has suggested legalizing polygamy, but I've heard religious conservatives on Fox News Channel make that claim. I even heard one ask if bestiality would follow legalized gay marriage. The absurdity seems obvious to me, but not to this commentator.

Raising the minimum wage to index it to inflation does not logically lead to a $20/hr minimum wage. Nor does legalizing medical marijuana lead to the legalization of heroine.

Yesterday, I saw a Democrat suggesting that indexing Social Security to lifespan increases would "end Social Security." I'm not sure how increasing retirement age by a month or two every three years could end Social Security. Either the politician believes the Republicans would risk losing all future elections or he was engaging in slippery slope hyperbole: increase retirement a month now, eventually you won't get to retire before 90.

Slippery slopes make great television but aren't informative. It is a shame our leaders and the media commentators are helplessly attached to such sloppy arguments. Trying to argue that a single, incremental step in any direction leads to a leap in that direction should result in laughter. Sadly, the moderators of discussions seem more likely to enjoy the slippery slope than many of their guests.

Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity live on slippery slopes. Matthews cannot resist asking Republicans dumb questions about "doing away" with the social safety net, which he has to know will not happen. Hannity cannot resist arguing that any government regulation is a step towards "socialism" or something more insidious. I cannot stand to watch either host for more than few minutes because they don't argue the nuanced realities of politics. The slippery slope is too convenient.

Students struggle with the slippery slope because it can seem like a logical argument.

However, the slippery slope often relies on omission and simplification. The slippery slope assumes the audience won't consider any nuance, context, or pragmatism when evaluating the arguments.

Let's take the 55 mph speed limit. Yes, it was about saving lives, but it was also about engine fuel efficiency, pollution control, wear on infrastructure, and dozens of other variables. The speed limit was not about one thing: it was a set of interconnected issues that resulted in a compromise based on cost-benefit analysis. The 55 mph limit represents the most fuel-efficent point of many engines. It represents the speed at which most adults have reasonably good reaction times to obstacles ahead. It is the speed at which "harmonic" vibrations are least likely to damage roads via "rippling" effects. The "slippery slope" argument depends on the audience not asking questions about variables other than safety.

The same pattern is true of numerous other public policy debates. The slippery slope arguments are simple, usually reliant on one or two variables, not the complex web of variables we must actually address as a society.

You really can have tax rates that are too high or too low. Economists, left and right, admit this. But politicians embrace the slippery slope arguments. Democrats claim Republicans want no taxes, while Republicans suggest Democrats want to confiscate all wealth. The slippery slope causes Democrats to argue a two percent tax reduction is a step towards no taxes at all on the rich. The slope tilts right with the argument Democrats will raise taxes on the hardest workers until no one wants to work anymore. Again, dumb arguments unless you believe one side or the other is evil (and stupid).

I admit it is tempting, even comforting, to think of opponents as villains. That doesn't make the slippery slope logical.

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