Volokh\'s Slippery Slope

Eugene VolokhI attended a talk by Eugene Volokh tonight, as part of the local "Saturday Night Anarchy Club". While the talk was held on a Monday, belying the name, as David Friedman remarked: "Hey, why not, we're anarchists!". The talk was about mechanisms of the slippery slope, based on this longer and this shorter [PDF] paper. A slippery slope argument is when someone opposes A because they believe it will lead to B, and such arguments are often derided for various reasons. Volokh takes them seriously and explores various mechanisms by which they might exist.

Strangely, I found the talk both obvious and interesting. It was obvious because from an economics viewpoint, all he was doing was describing one of the many kinds of things which we must take into account in making rational decisions. It would be foolish to simply evaluate A on its merits, without considering how A changes the chances of B, C, and D happening. Of course if A changes those chances, that must be part of our evaluation of the utility of A. And indeed, in real life we do discuss and take into account such factors. So what's new?

Sliding down the slippery slopeThe thing is that identifying actual slippery slopes can be quite unintuitive, and arguing based on them is derided because such arguments are often taken to an extreme. Hence analyzing slippery slopes, considering examples, and building a taxonomy of their mechanisms, as Volokh has done, is useful and interesting.

While Volokh focused on the political implications of slippery slopes, there is another reason to explore them. For anyone with an interest in changing the world, like libertarian activists, a deep understanding of slippery slopes is surely useful. After all, they offer a way via which small changes can lead to large results, hence a way that individuals can impact the world. With my seasteading work, for example, the main way we've constructed a realistic plan is by utilizing steps which naturally easy the transition to future steps - in other words, a slippery slope. In fact, one might consider this a general method for achieving large changes in the world - exploit various of the mechanisms Volokh has described to build a path along the slippery slope from the current state of the world to your desired one.

One interesting thing was that Volokh mentioned libertarians several times for examples, and characterized them very strongly as deontologists, even once tossing out the phrase "Randian Objectivists". Since I've been exposed to a lot of consequentalist libertarians, this seemed a bit odd, but it may well be true in general. If this is how L's are usually perceived in legal or academic settings, its no wonder they aren't taken very seriously.

In defending the proposition that most citizens probably think the legislature is right most of the time, (which I think is true), he claimed that if it were not true, then there would be a different government. I objected to this, suggesting that the citizens might feel that the government was usually wrong, but that any alternative government would be even more wrong, and someone else pointed out that they might simply not have a cost-effective way to change the situation. Volokh was unconvinced, and seemed almost naive in not being able to see the disconnect between individual desires and the outputs of a political system. He did make an excellent point that people are likely to choose to believe that the government is usually right for various psychological reasons.

One thing I very much liked was that he was able to demonstrate slippery slope mechanisms which work even with rational agents. However, he also pointed out various ways in which human irrationality contributes to the phenomenon. I commented that being able to prove it with rational people makes the argument much stronger, but that in reality, irrational effects are likely to be large contributors, to which he agreed.

Volokh made it clear that there was lots of further work to be done in studying historical examples, and trying to disentangle actual slippery slopes from coincidences.

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