Slippery Slopes

In American Politics, it is common to hear arguments about slippery slopes. The Republican Party will argue that any new government policy or program places the nation on a slippery slope toward complete autocracy. Civil rights lawyers will argue that any change in policy or regulation could open the door for new policies, leading to a slippery slope where the nation regresses on civil rights legislation and equality. The party is afraid that one small change will lead to a cascade of larger changes. They fear that one policy they don’t like will build momentum for larger policies that go further in what they consider the wrong direction (to be fair, this isn’t limited to the Republican Party, but as the general “anti-government” party they are an easier example).
The rhetoric is often overblown, but the truth is that there are many examples of slippery slopes in politics and in human nature more broadly. Public policy research, as well as the history of the last several years in American politics, has demonstrated that it is harder to get rid of an existing policy than to implement a new policy. The fight to pass the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was a drawn out legislative onslaught. The attempted repeal of large sections of the bill was booted from the realm of possibilities when a single senator gave a thumbs down on the Senate floor. Once a benefit is in place, once people have something, it is hard to go back.
Yuval Noah Harari shows that this isn’t just something that happens in modern politics, it is likely what happened when the very first human institutions and communities formed. The Agricultural Revolution in general helped support more people in a given space than foraging and hunting/gathering. However, it was barely a tradeoff that was worthwhile for the humans who made the first transition to cultivating crops. Their lives were less fun, their diets were worse, and while they had some protections from animals and weather, they were still vulnerable to a host of maladies that were in some instances worsened by farming and living in close proximity to other humans. But once a few generations had settled into farming, once ploughing fields had begun to increase crop yields, a slipper slope was in place, and there was no going back to foraging from farming.
Harari writes, “if the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times?” Generally, it is hard to take away some sort of benefit (in the case of Harari’s quote the benefit is sufficient food for survival) even if it is for the good of most of the people to take the thing away. Getting rid of farming, ploughing fields, and agriculture would have returned the small human communities to foraging bands that roamed in smaller numbers but didn’t have to spend all day working to cultivate a single crop. The tradeoff may have been worth it for those who survived, but the foraging lifestyle would have supported fewer people in the tribe, and it would have been hard for everyone to abandon farming and accept that someone was going to die without enough food.
It’s worth noting that slippery slope arguments are shallow. They are often dependent on fixed or zero sum economies. They assume that people won’t make changes or adapt, and they generalize an entire population as behaving in a single way. The end point of a slippery slope is hardly ever as bad as it is made out to be at the beginning (we don’t have socialism in 2021 after all – 10 years past the passage of Obamacare). But it is true that slippery slopes do exist, and that policies and programs are harder to take back once they are in place. Slippery slopes have existed in the world of politics for a long time, and have existed within the history of humanity for even longer.

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