Monday, July 27, 2009

Why the Slippery Slope Argument is Not Always Wrong

For years we’ve heard the sneering directed at the ‘slippery slope’ argument made by the NRA that they must contend every perceived infringement of what they view as a Second Amendment guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms or the first chink in the armor would simply be a beachhead to further restrictions and ultimately to a complete elimination of the private gun ownership.  Pragmatists have often argued that the NRA could make minor concessions in situations where the perceived infringement of gun rights were in the public good and would not harm legal gun owners.  This slippery slope view was a constant source of derision by many, who saw it as a silly and inflexible argument – a revealing sign that the NRA was extreme and unwilling to be reasonable in the gun debate.

Over the last few years I have begun to wonder if the slippery slope was, after all, more prescient as an analysis than I’d thought.  When the governments at all levels began to take action against smoking to protect people who were being exposed to second-hand smoke, that seemed a good and proper thing.  It was harmful to them, in whatever degree, and it seemed appropriate to ensure that people who did not wish to be exposed to smoke would not be forced to do so in public places.  Next, however, we began to see specific taxes directed at penalizing people who smoked and I began to wonder “Who gets to decide which behaviors our society will target, and restrict the individual right to eat, drink, drive, smoke, exercise or not exercise, etc., as he or she sees fit.  Where does the public or government point of view begin to supersede the individual person’s choices for their own behavior and lifestyle?  Who gets to decide what free citizens are allowed to do with their own bodies? 

Well, the answers are beginning to seem to me to argue that the slippery slope view was more correct than I had believed.  Legislatures have begun debating financial penalties (read: new taxes), criminal penalties and product restrictions when those government elements reach a decision that those substances, behaviors or activities are ‘wrong’ or ‘harmful’. 

Should Big Macs be taxed at say, $5 a piece, because too many will promote obesity and heart disease?  How about Twinkies?  Or perhaps just the deep fried Twinkies at the fair?  Obesity?  Should we refuse to provide expensive treatment for adult-onset diabetes because a person’s behavior contributes to the contraction of the disease?  Should we ban advertising for foods or other products that some legislator or mayor or governor thinks adversely affects this amorphous ‘public good’?  Some argue that the tax would be a constant reminder to people that what they were buying wasn’t ‘good for them’.  Maybe I should be allowed three days in a county jail to re-think my choices if I don’t document that I got at least twenty minutes of aerobic exercise three times each week.  After all,  exercise is good, right?  And if I don’t do it then it would clearly be in my best interests to do whatever is needed to ‘help’ me do what is best for me.  What if, like dear old Dom Delouise, food makes one happy?  Perhaps we should amend the Declaration to say “the pursuit of happiness (if said pursuit includes only behaviors which are deemed ‘healthy’ by appropriate authorities).  Even if a person is making poor choices, is it the role of government to intervene?  Should we be made to buy food with cards that track the items we buy and refuse to allow us to go over some caloric, or fat content value that has been determined by the government?  Or maybe we should create devices to attach to the naughty bits and be required to gain approval before engaging in ‘adult behavior’ with a partner.  That way, if both partners didn’t have recent and approved STD results on file, a jolt (note that I am assuming an unpleasant and deterrent jolt) would be issued to the bits of the party not approved for whatever form of intimate congress.  In fact, when you think about it, things that were far-fetched a decade ago are actually being considered now.  Is that not a slippery slope?  Perhaps we could put controls on the car that refuse to start the vehicle if the person in the drivers seat hasn’t had a minimum of six hours of REM or deeper sleep – that would end the scourge of drowsy driving, right? 

I could go on and on, and looking up I think I have.  But I am definitely beginning to wonder if the slippery slope is in fact the best logical argument for the incredibly rapidly expanding intrusion of government into personal, private lives and choices.  What worries me more and more each day are these questions, and the variety of proposals I am reading and hearing about almost every day on the news:

  • Who decides what is best for me?  When the city/county/state/federal government needs new tax revenues will they come up with a new way to ‘help’ me and all Americans by taxing me – say a 50% excise tax on processed meats, which would help me to avoid the hot dog at the baseball game, or fund the latest underfunded stimulus package item?  Isn’t it a public service when I am stupid and self-destructive with a Hebrew National in one hand and a Red Hook in the other at the ballpark?  Taxing me for that behavior, rather than putting me in the corner to “think about what I have done”…is that responsible parenting by my new parent government entities of all levels? 

“Thank you sir, may I have another?”

  • What means are appropriate to ‘help’ me do what is best for me?  Taxes?  Fines? Jail time?  Public humiliation (a la prostitute patrons whose names are published)? 
  • What if I am not instilling properly healthful habits in my kids?  Say junior comes in at 20 pounds overweight, should the tax deduction I get for him be withdrawn?  Or maybe we should both have to take classes on parenting and growing up appropriately?
  • Am I crazy in wondering if this sort of tax-the-behavior-that- costs-money-in-health-care reasoning might one day lead to taxing people who reproduce if they have genes that increase the risk of increasing health care costs? 
  • If in fact, research proves that caloric restriction over a lifespan not only extends life expectancy meaningfully, but reduces health care costs as well, would it be reasonable for government to restrict calories?  Or tax overeating even when it did not produce overweight?  Or might we want to then encourage overeating so that we wouldn’t have the costs of people living longer?

The slippery slope reasoning seems to be a slippery slope itself, and I have now officially given myself a headache.  Which makes me wonder:  might we tax blogs that cause stress, headache, anger, irritation or anxiety?  After all, those things all drive up health care costs.

As always, the problem with regulation is less about the idea of regulating, and much more about who does it, how they do it and what means are allowed.  I would once have thought these things stupid and extreme thoughts.  But then, they weren’t in the Congressional Record and every major newspaper then.  I disliked the Nanny State talk almost as much as the slippery slope argument – thinking them sort of paranoid.  The events of recent years are making me wonder whether the folks warning about both have been on to something all along.


Taxing cosmetic surgery - is it because it is vain, or because rick people don't need to be prettier than the rest of us?

Plain drinks are fine, all that flavored stuff is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Incentives for 'healthy behavior' - will your salary be tied to your weight, exercise habits, sufficient sleep, eating habits...perhaps good blood pressure or cholesterol numbers?

(Do a couple of quick Google searches and you’ll be amazed at how many proposals there are right now.  I was.)

PS---Isn’t this the same sort of argument that was made early in the AIDS epidemic?  Didn’t we hear that money shouldn’t be wasted finding cures for a disease that people ‘brought on themselves’? 

1 comment:

Michael Burt said...

Another interesting article that acknowledges the tobacco wars as policy and strategy test beds for the coming obesity war and beyond to other individual behaviors deemed not to be in the public interest:

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