Thursday, 16 December 2021

The psychology of the slippery slope

My City AM column today looks at the slippery slope.

'I don’t think this is a big step or a slippery slope', Dominic Raab said on Tuesday when asked about the introduction of Covid-19 passes. This will come as news to the people of Italy, New Zealand and several other countries where normal life is now impossible without proof of two jabs.

In Austria, the government started with vaccine passports and then moved on to a lockdown for the unvaccinated, with plans for mandatory vaccination in a few months.

Slippery slope arguments are often used by people who fear that an unwelcome precedent is being set by a new policy, such as assisted dying or laws banning “hate speech”. Such arguments are generally seen as logical fallacies. If Policy A is implemented, there is nothing inevitable about it leading to Policy B or Policy C. Each policy should be taken on its own merits. 

But while slippery slopes might not be inevitable, setting a precedent can open Pandora’s Box. There are plenty of examples of campaigns increasing in size and scope in a way that was not envisaged by those who started them. Last week, New Zealand’s government announced plans to gradually ban the sale of cigarettes, a policy that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago but is now portrayed as the “next logical step” after indoor smoking bans, plain packaging and the rest. In the UK, advertisements for so-called junk food will soon be banned after campaigners portrayed sugar as “the new tobacco”.

Do read the rest. I argue that there are several reasons why setting a precedent tends to create the circumstances in which regulation becomes a runaway train, regardless of the intentions of those who started it. 

There is a small economics literature about this. In the article I mention this study by Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman. It is essential reading for anyone interested in this area of political economy.
... it is misleading to say that “we” are capable of making correct decisions in the future. The process by which arguments are accepted and decisions made is a social one that derives from the decisions of many individuals. No single decision-maker can control the evolution of the discussion. The person who makes an SSA [slippery slope argument] does not necessarily claim that the listener himself will be the perpetrator of the future bad decision. Rather, he draws attention to the structure of discussion that will shape the decisions of many decision-makers involved in a social process. 
The consequence of this is that you can end up with a package of policies that very few people fully agree with.

It is a well-known fact that if a majority approves of policy A, and a majority also approves policy B, it does not follow that a majority would also approve the union of A and B. The reason is that the majorities supporting the separate policies may not be the same. If 51 percent support A and 51 percent support B, it is possible that as few as 2 percent support both. This fact may not be terribly relevant for our purposes if policies A and B are totally unrelated, but it takes on special significance if the policies are logically or practically related. If that is so, then separate validation of the two policies could result in an overall “coherent” policy outcome that would not itself be validated and could constitute an SSE [slippery slope event]. 

... Separate implementation of the two policies, under the assumptions, leads to an outcome desired only by a small fraction of the public.

I would add that in the field of paternalistic 'public health', there is an element of divide and conquer. Smokers are a minority. Vapers and a minority. Heavy consumers of alcohol and sugary drinks are a minority. Vapers might approve of smoking bans. Consumers of sugary drinks might approve of sin taxes on alcohol. But if their support for such policies leads to vaping bans and sugary drinks taxes, they would probably not approve of the full package.

That's what people need to remember when consider penalising other groups, especially when they are in a minority themselves. The nanny state will come for us all eventually.

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