Here’s a thought I’ve been meaning to write up for a while. This post has inspired me. Your opponent says healthcare reform will put us on the slippery slope to socialist soylent green serfdom. You reply by acknowledging the objection, in outline: ‘You’re worried Obama/liberals want something different from what they are willing to ask for, for fear that they would lose public support. You are also worried that what is being proposed may have bad, unintended consequences.’ (See if you can lock your interlocutor in on these two points. Which shouldn’t be hard. Now move on to step two.) ‘Fine. Suppose you’re right. Suppose they are lying, or half-lying. They don’t want the moderate stuff they say they want at all. They want something radical, or at least something more.’ (See if you can get agreement to that.) Also: ‘you are right. Something this big and sausage-like sure could work out badly in practice; that’s something to worry about.’ (Now you spring the trap.) ‘But suppose someone said these things and meant them. Suppose Obama were just the liberal he presents himself as. Call this guy Bizarro Obama if you want to emphasize that you aren’t fooled for a second into believing our Obama is this guy. Fine. Would you have any objection to Bizarro Obama – the actually just moderately liberal one? Also: suppose the policy worked more or less as proposed. Not perfectly. But suppose it didn’t just totally blow up. I know, I know, you don’t believe this policy will work. That’s fine. But suppose it did. Would you have a problem with that. If so, what’s the problem.’
Call these: sticky slope arguments – or – the argument from intended consequences. I think you see where I’m going with these names, and maybe you see as well why leading your opponent down this path might leave your opponent a bit deflated, rhetorically. Which might then be an opener for saner debate.
Whether baiting and springing this minor socratic trap would win hearts and minds, or even win debating points on Sunday morning talking head shows, it illustrates something structurally important that is worth keeping in mind. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And slippery slope arguments, arguments from unintended consequences and the paranoid style generally are the tribute conservatism pays to the deep appeal of progressive and liberal values. They are all attempts to outflank all that without engaging it. These are methods for getting off the hook of saying there’s something wrong with what liberals/progressives want. You pretend your opponent isn’t really a liberal/progressive but some secret radical. That’s method one. You pretend the results of liberal/progressive policies wouldn’t be truly liberal/progressive (because we would slip past all that or otherwise end up elsewhere than intended.) That’s method two. That’s pretty much it.
Now what makes this hard to deal with is that, in fact, slippery slope arguments, arguments from unintended consequences, and a certain amount of paranoia where political motives are concerned, all have a legitimate place on all almost all levels of political and policy debate. (Even at the airiest of political theory levels, and certainly at the grittiest of practical levels, there is some room for worrying about these things, I suspect.) You can’t just say conservatives are wrong to make these kinds of arguments. Period. Still, they are wrong always to play only these cards. Period. But that’s not a generalization that is easy to substantiate relative to any specific argument which – to repeat – may be a valid one.
Conservatives may say that the situation is perfectly symmetrical. That liberals do the same by demonizing their conservative opponents as really wanting to do terrible things. So liberals conveniently sidestep the need to argue against moderate conservative ideas. Even if all conservatives really are evil idiots, still it is possible to imagine a possible world in which the conservative grown-ups had stepped up, at which NRO’s Corner is a place to visit to hear intelligent, informed debate. I don’t think that’s right, however. Liberals genuinely would be happy to have a lively policy debate with moderate conservatives – a debate in which they get to signal tolerant respect for the opponent’s different point of view and, to some degree, different values. By contrast, conservatives would find nothing more dreadful than such a debate. Conservative extremists because it would require them to give up all their arguments, since all their arguments either express extremism or presuppose its presence on the other side; conservative moderates because, at the present time, they just don’t have a lot of ideas that would be likely to win out. This is basically the Frum point: no moderate conservative could favor the status quo in healthcare. So you need your own bold reform proposals that do all the same things that liberals want, but do them (ex hypothesi) more effectively, with less unintended consequences. That’s a high bar to clear and no significant number of even moderately influential conservative minds – never mind Republican politicians – are even willing to acknowledge this is the bar to clear, never mind trying to clear it.
The point can be generalized beyond the healthcare debate. But that debate exemplifies it nicely.