If a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, that first step often is the most difficult. So we go nowhere. Witness the fiscal cliff and gun violence. Why? We fear the unknown leading us down a slippery slope.
Fear of the slippery slope is ancient. Proverbs 2:12-15 warns against a series of actions actions culminating with following evil people. The Mishna (Pirke Avot 1:1) calls for building a fence around the Torah to prevent violations of the Law. For example, while Torah (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21) forbids boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, the Sages push the fence out by forbidding mixing any meat and dairy.
Recently, I mentioned to a friend means testing for Social Security. He dismissed discussing the idea. Tax the full Social Security benefit (85 percent now is taxable) instead, he said. What did he fear? Even mentioning reductions for upper-income retirees would cause fear of the slippery slope. Americans en masse would assume that everyone’s benefits eventually would be reduced.
That’s no way to create policy. Sure, you have to do the math to determine whether fully taxable benefits might sufficiently ease future pressure on Social Security versus cuts at the upper end. But let’s be honest. If benefits for recipients with incomes (tax-free included) of, say, $125,000 were lowered by 10 percent with a 15 percent cut for people with incomes of $200,000 and above, those folks’ lifestyles wouldn’t suffer. Meanwhile, people who must survive on Social Security would retain their full benefits and could count on them in the future.
Discussions about gun violence produce the same illogic. Ban AR-15 military-style weapons, according to the National Rifle Association, and Washington will ban all guns. Thus Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, stated this morning that armed guards should be posted in all schools. Which leaves assault rifles unaddressed until attempts are made at mass murder. So let’s get serious. Many people hunt. Their weapons should not be confiscated. Others want to protect their homes. Fine—if they’re properly licensed and thoroughly trained. And they understand the risks Nicholas Kristoff pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times.
But whatever your opinion, it’s nonsense to withhold rational discussion so we can separate fact from fiction and find a gun policy that makes more sense—even if it’s not perfect—than the one we have now.
The problem is that many people equate putting everything on the table with accepting everything on the table. So they refuse to talk at all. If you’ve ever been involved with a group trying to solve a problem, you know that the first rule is to consider all suggestions. Censorship, other- or self-directed, greatly limits finding good solutions.
What now? We’ll likely find ourselves suffering from paralysis yet again. And that’s what demagogues love. They stir up fears of the slippery slope to obstruct—and chase political payoffs at the nation’s expense. When Proverbs 2:15 warns against “Men whose paths are crooked / And who are devious in their course,” we should take notice. Because what’s really scary isn’t the slippery slope. It’s slippery people.
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