On the Slippery Slope of Classical Liberalism

This post about slippery slope arguments subsequends three priors: JM Smith’s post, Bill Vallicella’s critique thereof, and JM Smith’s response thereto. Readers might want to run through them, before essaying what here follows.

The slippery slope argument is to be sure, and strictly speaking, a logical fallacy, as Vallicella notices. But then, it is not intended first as a logical argument; so that it is mistaken to take it first as such. It is rather intended as an empirical and pragmatic argument – or even, rather, a simple observation, from which we might begin to adduce logical arguments.

To illustrate the difference between logical arguments on the one hand, and empirical and pragmatic arguments on the other – and speaking of slopes – I adduce the following example. It does not follow *logically* that an avalanche must ensue upon the firing of a gun by ski patrolmen, which they intend to trigger an avalanche prophylactically (and so spare lives). Nevertheless, firings of guns at ski resorts do indeed often *seem* to trigger avalanches. Now, no partiscience can be competent to a complete causal demonstration – a logical demonstration, i.e., given the (impossible to any partiscience) adequate – i.e., perfectly comprehensive, which is to say, omniscient – specifications of the foreconditions of the ineradicable past of the avalanche – that the guns do in fact trigger avalanches.

Hume, big guy, thanks.

But, it does seem to work out that way, often enough.

This is why Alpine Village has artillery. This year we are enjoying a massive winter in the Sierra, thank Heaven, so I suppose they’ll be firing it almost every morning, until August. When I was hiking with my son a few years ago on the western slope of the mountains – in June, mind, with snow still everywhere (we were the first hikers into the Granite Chief Valley that season … in *June*) – we heard the booms of the Alpine Village artillery echoing over the adjacent ridge every morning, before the lifts opened up.

Harking back then to the slippery slope at issue between JM and Bill: it does not follow *logically* that classical liberalism must end up devouring itself. But we see that it is, in fact, devouring itself.

OK. Here then a bit of game theoretical reasoning, which *is* logical. Let’s apply the Gedanken Policy Test. Of two societies, otherwise completely similar in every respect, which is more likely to fall to another, or just fail simpliciter: the one that admits all foreign salients without limit, or the one that strictly controls all such ingressions, so as to dampen their dilutive effects upon the nation?

The question answers itself, no?

Notice that the question posed is probabilistic, not logical. Nevertheless, the answer is logical. It is logically true that a society that opens itself to foreigners without limit is more likely to fail and vanish than another exactly similar society that closes itself to foreigners, or limits them strictly.

Take a more concrete case, and a more specific. Say that the national cult of the nation called USA has for thousands of years abhorred murder in all its forms, and proscribed it absolutely, in all its forms; and that this abhorrence and proscription are rooted in and founded upon and derived from theological, metaphysical, and anthropological premises, from which they follow with perfect validity. Now consider: will the abhorrence and proscription of murder in USA be weakened even a jot by admission to USA, and by tolerance therein, of even a few people who adhere to a cult that honors human sacrifice, and thinks it just and righteous altogether, indeed holy, and insofarforth obligatory?

Of course they will. Res ipsa loquitur.

Now, amplify. What will happen to the abhorrence and proscription of murder in all its forms so typical and so essential to USA, when millions of people are admitted thereto, and tolerated thereby, who adhere to such a cult of human sacrifice?

Again, it is not hard to discern the answer.

This is what is happening to the West, right now. Notice that it does not matter to the force of the argument, whether the aliens of a cult alien to that of USA are of foreign or domestic origin. Either way, the Gedanken Policy Test is dispositive.

Heresy is no more adaptive than invasion.

The slippery slope is not a logical argument, and it is a misprision to treat it as such. It is, rather, a fact of life. Whatever we do, we are more inclined to do again. Not that we are logically necessitated in that repetition. Rather, only, that we find that repetition easier. Practice makes perfect, right? So equally for vicious habits as for virtuous. This is, not a logical necessity, but a practical observation. It’s just the way the world works, whether toward virtue or toward vice.


The doctrine of Original Sin, and those of our concupiscence and native depravity, all subtend and hang upon these pragmatic considerations. That the cosmos is Fallen, so that we as her chthonic members are all in virtue of that membership prone ab initio to partake her Fall (so as to fit in with our fellows in good causal order, you see; so that the cosmos can proceed as such), so to concupiscence, and so to sin – this being in a nutshell the doctrine of Original Sin – these are all, and in all their particular instances, exemplars of the slippery slope: what has been done already is easier to do again, and so is that much likelier to be done again, than it would as never yet done have been to do.

The first draft of whiskey taken in a man’s life is bitter, horrible, and repellent. Why on Earth would anyone drink that shit? The second, not so much. The hundredth? Delectable.

Same for coffee, even. And, a fortiori, for tobacco.

Slippery slopes, all of them. They surround us ever, on every side, as we wend our way carefully, and with many a false step, up the razor edge of the ridge that leads to the summit.

6 thoughts on “On the Slippery Slope of Classical Liberalism

  1. Lord Macaulay gives a rather good counter-example, for experience cuts both ways.

    The doctrine of reprobation, in the judgment of many very able men, follows by syllogistic necessity from the doctrine of election. Others conceive that the Antinomian heresy directly follows from the doctrine of reprobation; and it is very generally thought that licentiousness and cruelty of the worst description are likely to be the fruits, as they often have been the fruits, of Antinomian opinions. …

    For, reason the matter as we may, experience shows us that a man may believe in election without believing in reprobation, that he may believe in reprobation without being an Antinomian, and that he may be an Antinomian without being a bad citizen. Man, in short, is so inconsistent a creature that it is impossible to reason from his belief to his conduct, or from one part of his belief to another…

    We know through what strange loopholes the human mind contrives to escape, when it wishes to avoid a disagreeable inference from an admitted proposition. We know how long the Jansenists contrived to believe the Pope infallible in matters of doctrine, and at the same time to believe doctrines which he pronounced to be heretical.

  2. “Whatever we do, we are more inclined to do again,” and faster. The essence of a slippery slope is acceleration of the trend until it is terminated by an external constraint. It is not self-regulating like the pendulum, which also accelerates, but only in phases that are interrupted by phases of deceleration.

    Mass immigration was “corrected” one hundred years ago because there was a relatively coherent American nation that could come to its senses and decelerate. That nation is no longer coherent or large enough to overrule, by which I mean exercise supremacy, over the diverse revanchists and opportunists who benefit from mass immigration. So it will be acceleration to a crash.

    Relaxed law enforcement tends to engender revulsion, and therefore deceleration and reversal of the trend. You remember the old gag that a conservative is a liberal who has just been mugged. Lax law enforcement therefore corrects itself by producing conservatives. But this assumes that opinions are shaped by actual experiences like the experience of being mugged, rather than by the malignant mendacities of the opinion industry. The normalization of same-sex marriage taught us that public opinion is no longer connected to manifest reality, but is rather governed by the malignant mendacities of an opinion industry run by revanchists and opportunists.

    Equilibrating systems survive. That’s why so many systems are equilibrating. But an equilibrating system cannot equilibrate when it assimilates revanchists who want to destroy it, and opportunists who can make a buck out of it being destroyed.

    • Equilibrating systems cannot equilibrate in the absence of feedback signals from their world. Men are such as ever to default to social conformity, even when the Conventional Wisdom is at odds with their own concrete experience; for, after all, the presumption must be that the consensus is the common sense of the people, that has ironed out all the errors of apprehension introduced to the discourse by its members. If everyone I know is convinced that the sky is green, I am going to start hypothesizing that perhaps there is something wrong with my color vision.

      Thus except in the midst of disasters, when concrete reality makes herself incontrovertibly felt – so that social divisions tend to vanish – the opinion industry (including the grapevine) has greater sway over men’s minds and opinions, and more informs their acts, than concrete reality.

      So here’s the thing: when reality has not bitten lately, hard, the opinion industry has been able to proceed upon its merry way uncorrected, elucidating the finer and more absurd implications of the consensus Narrative, and treating them as real.

      Equilibration then is toward the consensus, without regard to hard reality. Society adapts *to itself,* but not to its world. As the social order is thereby deformed more and more in disagreement to reality, its equilibration with respect to reality is prevented.

  3. William Luse comments via email:

    [Kristor,] I liked your take on the slippery slope argument. It is never intended to be purely deductive. It’s merely a common sense attempt to predict the results of an action either commanded or permitted. If I caution you not to take your first sip of liquor, because the next stop for you will be the drunk tank at your local jail followed, years later, by entry into a twelve step program, that is in all probability (though not certainly) a very bad argument. But (to resort to a tired example), if I warn Justice Douglas, as he gropes for the lyrical penumbra that will emerge as Griswold v. Connecticut, that the likely consequence of his Opinion (human nature being what it is) will be an undesirable spike in the rates of infidelity, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births; and that this latter will necessitate the issuance of a further Opinion granting the liberty of abortion (to ameliorate the chaos caused by the first Opinion), an honest man will have to admit that I might have a point. Because, though it is true that none of these effects must necessarily follow, it is a fact that as sure as shit stinks and the rivers flow to the sea, they did.

    God I wish Zippy were here to participate. There is one question that I feel confident he would ask Mr. Vallicella: of all the societies that have embodied (in Mr. V’s opinion) or embraced classical liberalism, what has been their general trajectory since that phenomenon first appeared in history? Toward a vision of the good, the true and the beautiful? Or away from it? (Zippy, of course, thought that liberalism has the seed of its own destruction built into its premises). Again, it does not follow of necessity that these societies must die – there can always be hope of a resurrection – but at the moment we are in fact dying. And the virtue of hope is itself a slippery slope, with the difference that you are climbing up it rather than sliding down.


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