So why should they be off-limits when discussing policy?
University of Chicago Economics Professor Richard Thaler says “slippery slope” arguments should be ignored, and he cites the U.S. Supreme Court's recent hearings on the health care reform law.
“There are lots of important things to worry about these days: terrorism, the economy, climate change and, for Yankee fans, the loss of Mariano Rivera,” Thaler writes in the New York Times. “But worry is a scarce commodity. Even a mother — Jewish or not — can't worry about everything. So it is important that we limit our worries to real as opposed to imaginary risks.”
That may be true — insofar as alien invasions and giant, irradiated spiders eating Cincinnati go. But are unintended consequences “imaginary risks”?
Let's look at some of those consequences. The most famous example, perhaps, is the effect Prohibition had on crime. The Volstead Act became law at midnight on Jan. 17, 1920. At 12:59 a.m., six men stole $100,000 worth of “medicinal” whiskey from a train. It was a sign of things to come; organized crime boomed during (and following) Prohibition. The amendment led to the corruption of political figures and law enforcement officials, as well as an increase in homicides (12.7 percent), overall crime (24 percent in 30 cities surveyed) and even in the domestic violence Prohibition was intended to curb.
“The charge, which Spirit called the ‘Department of Transportation's unintended consequences' fee, is being added to most one-way fares in response to a new department rule that allows passengers to change their minds within 24 hours of booking a trip without paying a penalty,” USA Today reported in February.
But Thaler says “slippery slope” arguments are “wacky.”
He writes, “Consider these now-famous comments about broccoli from Justice Antonin G. Scalia during the oral arguments. ‘Everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food,' he said. ‘Therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli…' Justice Scalia is arguing that if the court lets Congress create a mandate to buy health insurance, nothing could stop Congress from passing laws requiring everyone to buy broccoli and to join a gym.”
Thaler scoffs at the notion.
Well, yes. This is the government that mandates what kind of light bulbs we use. The current Nanny State acknowledges no boundaries.
And in fact, the grim truth is that for the health care law to work at all, Americans are going to have to slim down — that's simple math (to use President Barack Obama's words). With an increasing number of beneficiaries and a decreasing number of contributors, the many chronic diseases (and their high costs) caused by obesity will become unsustainable very quickly. Broccoli appears to be in our future.
Thaler and other supporters of the health care law seem to wish to limit debate — which could be a sign of how confident they are in the law's merits.
But that aside, “slippery slope” arguments should remain part of the conversation. That's because every policy has consequences — both intended, and otherwise.