Gun-Control Foes and Slippery-Slope Fallacies

By Sunstein, Cass R | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Gun-Control Foes and Slippery-Slope Fallacies


Sunstein, Cass R, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In 1991, the economist Albert Hirschman published a biting, funny and subversive book, "The Rhetoric of Reaction," whose principal goal was to provide a kind of reader's guide to conservative objections to social reform. Hirschman wanted to demonstrate that such objections are pervasive, mechanical, routinized and often unconvincing.

Hirschman used the words "perversity" and "futility" to describe his best examples of reactionary rhetoric. Conservatives often object that reforms will turn out to be perverse, because they will have the opposite of their intended effect. For example, those who oppose increases in the minimum wage contend that such increases will worsen unemployment and thus hurt the very people they are intended to help -- a clear example of perversity.

Alternatively, conservatives argue that reforms will do nothing to solve the problem that they purport to address. For example, those who oppose gun-control legislation contend that such laws will fail to decrease gun-related deaths -- a clear example of futility.

Hirschman agreed that such arguments are sometimes right, and he emphasized that progressives have routine rhetorical moves of their own. But his primary goal was to try to inoculate people against arguments that, while seemingly forceful, come out of a kind of reactionary's playbook, and that shouldn't be accepted until we have scrutinized them.

Illuminating though it is, Hirschman's account misses an especially pernicious example of the rhetoric of reaction: the slippery-slope argument. According to that argument, we should reject Reform A, which is admittedly not so terrible, because it would inevitably put us on a slippery slope to Reform B, which is really bad.

Examples are all around us. The federal government shouldn't require background checks for gun purchasers because, if it does, it will be on the path toward banning gun ownership. The Supreme Court shouldn't force states to recognize same-sex marriages because, if it does, it will have to require states to recognize polygamous marriages.

The Obama administration shouldn't intervene in Libya because, if it does, it will turn the United States into the globe's policeman, intervening whenever it likes. …

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