How slippery slope messaging sabotages incremental policy-making.

By Håkon Syrrist
12/13/2022 • 08:03 AM EST

December 11, 1963: South Vietnamese infantry about to be airlifted by a U.S. Army helicopter during a recent operation against the Viet Cong. (Underwood Archives)

Lose your pen and you could die! As the fable goes, if you lose your pen, you can't write, and if you can't write, you can't go to school; no school means no work, no work means no money, no money means no food… you get the picture. The idea is that one minor undesirable event will lead to catastrophic consequences. This thinking is the product of the slippery slope fallacy, a logical fallacy which dictates that if you let A happen, then Z will inevitably follow. Once you have started down the slippery slope, nothing can stop your descent.[1]

One huge policy-making misstep that epitomizes this thinking would come to be known as the "domino theory." Hatched in the 1950s, the Cold War policy insisted that if one country were to fall to communism, others would quickly follow, each falling like dominoes. At a press conference in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the public, "You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."[2] While this scenario struck fear in the hearts of many westerners, we now know that those dire predictions would never come to pass.[3]

Like the now-discredited domino theory, which preoccupied U.S. foreign policy for decades, the capacity of slippery slope messaging to sabotage incremental policy-making around critical issues is a testament to the enduring influence of the technique. We can see this same reasoning influencing today's policy-making, such as the legalization of abortion, assisted suicide, in vitro fertilization, and even DNA research.[4] Regarding assisted suicide for example, it is often argued that "The legalization of assisted suicide will lead inexorably to the acceptance of voluntary euthanasia and subsequently to the sanctioning of non-voluntary euthanasia –even involuntary euthanasia of 'undesirable' individuals."[4] In this case, slippery slope reasoning dictates that legalizing assisted suicide will inevitably lead to the euthanizing the disabled, the elderly, etc.

While slippery slope has cropped up around these issues, perhaps no policy-making effort in the U.S. has been more stymied by slippery slope messaging than gun control reform. Despite the staggering and unrelenting loss of life, meaningful gun control reform has remained elusive for decades.[5][6] All the while, slippery slope messaging around the issue has gummed up the works, obstructing the path to even meager reforms. Calls for reform in the wake of mass shootings are commonly met with fear that any legislative response will lead to a repeal of the second amendment.[7] The argument follows, "What, for example, will happen if we pass all the current gun restriction proposals and the crime keeps happening? You will want more gun laws. When those laws don't stop the violence then what will you do? More laws right?"[8] 

While it's not difficult to recognize the slippery slope reasoning embodied in the argument, the fallacy is still persuasive in that there's always a shred of truth to it. There's no way to prove that one action, like policy reform, won't lead to another. And like all slippery slope arguments, it leaves no room for incremental outcomes. However, if we break down the argument at each step, the probability of any inevitable outcome becomes less and less likely from one step to the next. The flaw in the logic is that the world is far more complex and random than slippery slope might have us believe, and just because someone may fear that an event might occur does not increase the likelihood of the event occurring. Even so, the human tendency to interpret fear as danger can make even the most irrational slippery slope logic seem rational.[9] So whatever you do, don't lose your pen.

1. "A logical analysis of slippery slope arguments". National Library of Medicine. Published: June 18, 2010.

2. "FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, 1952–1954, INDOCHINA, VOLUME XIII, PART 1". U.S. Department of State. Published: December 07, 2022.

3. "Domino Theory". Published: November 09, 2022.

4. "The Empirical Slippery Slope from Voluntary to Non-Voluntary Euthanasia". Kings College London. Published: December 17, 2017.

5. "What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S.". Pew Research Center. Published: February 03, 2022.

6. "The Long, Failed History of Gun Control Legislation". Boston University Today. Published: May 25, 2022.

7. "Amid a Series of Mass Shootings in the U.S., Gun Policy Remains Deeply Divisive". Pew Research Center. Published: April 20, 2021.

8. "Defining the Slippery Slope Gun Rights Argument". Published: December 07, 2022.

9. Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Roennlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think is. Sceptre Books. Published: 2018.