UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh visited Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Nov. 27 to discuss his seminal 2003 Harvard Law Review article “Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope.” The article explains how politicians and pundits use the inevitability premise to bolster their positions.
“When people say ‘slippery slope,’ what they really mean is your decision to endorse position A will change the economic, political or psychological conditions under which other people will consider position B,” Volokh said. “If you endorse A, this might contribute to others enacting B.”
To demonstrate the point, Volokh drew on suggested policy implementations for several hotly contested social issues, most notably the impact of gun registration on potential gun confiscation.
“Right now gun confiscation would be extremely expensive,” Volokh said. “First of all, it would involve a lot of manpower in order to do house-to-house searches. It’s going to be expensive in terms of risk to the police. It’s going to be expensive in terms of privacy. It’s also expensive in legal terms without a probable cause to believe a gun is there.”
However, Volokh argued that taking the smaller step of registering guns to gun owners would make it much easier for policymakers to justify confiscating arms.
“Why not confiscate guns? It used to be expensive, but it’s not so expensive now,” Volokh said. “There’s a list of all these gun owners. We know who the gun owners are, they know that we know who the gun owners are, and we know that they know that we know who all the gun owners are. So, as a consequence, they know that they had better turn them in.”
“That I think is not an easy argument to poo-poo,” Volokh said. “Some of these mechanisms don’t turn out this way, but this one I think is quite plausible. Gun registration changes the economic climate in which gun confiscation is considered.”
Thus, requiring gun registration can be viewed as a slippery slope to confiscation, but Volokh cautioned that no initial step can definitively lead to another in the often unpredictable world of politics.
“If the argument is that taking the first step will lead to the bottom of the slope—that is a fallacy,” Volokh said. “The very fact that we are talking about the first step and not the step at the bottom means we, as rational thinkers and political thinkers, can recognize the difference between the top and the bottom. The top and the bottom are distinguishable.”
In addition to teaching at UCLA, Volokh runs the website The Volokh Conspiracy, which deals with legal issues.