The Volokh Conspiracy

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Slippery Slope Arguments

Types of Political Power Slippery Slopes


[Last month, I've been serializing my 2003 Harvard Law Review article, The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope, and I'm finishing it up at the start of this month.]

Decision A may change the political balance in several different ways.

[1.] Decisions to change the voting rules (such as rules related to voter eligibility, ease of registration, apportionment, or supermajority requirements) may lead to more changes in the future. For instance, if noncitizen immigrants tend to support broader immigration, and oppose laws excluding noncitizens from benefits, then letting such noncitizens vote (A) may lead to more benefits for noncitizens, and more immigration (B).

[2.] Decisions that change the immigration or emigration rate could also lead to political power slippery slopes. {The same may be true of decisions that change childbearing rates by changing economic or social conditions in a way that makes having children more or less attractive.} This is true for both international migration and interstate and inter-city migration, and for both actual migration rules and any decision that makes migration more or less appealing. Allowing more residential development in a rural area (A), for instance, may lead to more policy changes (B), as migration from urban areas changes the political makeup of the rural area.

[3.] Political power slippery slopes can also be created by decisions that change the levels of participation in political campaigns, for instance the enactment of limits on what certain groups can say about candidates or proposals, or on how much money they can spend or contribute.

The Massachusetts ban on corporate speech regarding various ballot measures (A), which was struck down in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, was probably an attempt to ease the path to imposing new burdens on corporations, such as a corporate income tax (B). Likewise, some oppose "paycheck protection" measures that limit union spending on elections (A) because they are concerned that these measures would weaken unions politically and thus make broader anti-union laws easier to implement (B). Similar effects may also flow from changes in who in fact participates in campaigns and not just from changes in election rules, as the marijuana advertising example shows.

[4.] Political power slippery slopes may also be driven by changes in the number of people who feel personally affected by a particular policy, as in the school choice example—people who start using a valuable government service become a constituency for political decisions that preserve and expand this service. This is also why some oppose means-testing for certain benefits programs, such as Social Security or Medicare. If a general benefit program shifts to being open only to a smaller and poorer group (A), the political constituency that deeply supports the program declines in size and power, and further reductions (B) become easier to enact.

[5.] Finally, political power slippery slopes may be driven by government actions that make it easier or harder for supporters or opponents of a certain policy to organize or that affect the supporters' or opponents' credibility with the public. For instance, even mildly enforced criminalization of some activity (for instance, marijuana use) may diminish the political power of those who engage in this activity, because they may become reluctant to speak out for fear of being arrested or at least discredited. True, people can still publicly oppose calls for more serious punishments by saying (honestly or not) that they aren't users but want to defend the rights of those who are. But this is probably not as effective as people coming out of the closet to neighbors and coworkers by saying "Look at me—I like to smoke pot occasionally, but I'm still successful and otherwise law-abiding."