Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Farmer Jr.'s Attack on the "Slippery Slope," "Extremists" an Attack on Principles

Rutgers Law School dean John Farmer Jr. had an interesting piece in the NJ Star-Ledger titled A Firm Stand Against the NRA's Slippery Slope. Farmer does not so much as attack the National Rifle Association as to attack the very idea of a political "slippery slope."

To illustrate what he calls "the fallacy of the so-called slippery slope," Farmer writes:

   The slippery slope has been employed in any number of contexts by law professors seeking to befuddle students, and — to tremendously destructive effect — by the NRA in opposing virtually any restriction on the types of firearms or ammunition available to the public, and the mental health advocacy community in opposing every effort to identify and intervene in cases of potential mass slaughter.
   The allure of the slippery slope in the age of the tea party is clear: It appeals because it discourages compromise in any degree or form. Thus, the argument goes, if you ban assault weapons, the next thing you know the government will be disarming you completely. If you acknowledge it might be a worthy goal to try to identify potentially violent people before children are massacred, the next thing you know thousands of innocents will be in custody. Once you have compromised the slightest bit, you have lost everything. The safest course is to refuse to start down the slope of compromise. To stick, in other words, to your guns.
   At all costs.

Farmer labels both the NRA and the mental health advocates "extremists." Notice also the straw man Farmer sets up: The slippery slope "appeals because it discourages compromise in any degree or form."

The following is an expansion of comments I made:

It's no coincidence that Farmer attacks both "extremists" and the "slippery slope" analogy in the same article; they are related.

The slippery slope analogy refers to the identification of the logical consequences of a given principle, which are universal truths that apply to an unlimited number of concrete issues. Principles enable one to predict future consequences of specific actions;i.e., to understand what kinds of actions will necessarily follow from that principle.  For example, from the first time American's accepted the principle that the government may forcibly redistribute one dollar of any person's earnings, we entered the slippery slope toward economic collapse, social upheaval, and ultimately totalitarian socialist dictatorship. Just look at the size and scope of government today, as compared to a century ago, and we can see how far along that slope we have come. To reverse the trend, we must repudiate the principle of forced redistribution (among others). Otherwise, we will ultimately reach the logical consequences that lie at the bottom of that slippery slope.

Extremist is a smear term intended to discredit and dismiss those who advance a consistent, principled argument without debate (which is not to imply that LaPierre offered one). Those who attack "extremism" aim to eliminate principles from the debate, thus stifling debate and blinding people to the consequences of what they are proposing. In other words, the extremist smear is a signal that someone is trying to put one over on someone. Many people use the extremist term without having any idea what they are talking about. They just assume it's the magic bullet that will win the argument. But an educated person like Farmer knows what he is doing. He is trying to smuggle in his own principles, which he can then draw upon whenever he chooses to take the next logical step that that principle demands. By eliminating the slippery slope from the conversation--and, thus marginalizing the role of principles and the "extremists" who uphold them--he can then start us down the slippery slope of his own choosing, without much opposition.

Farmer's piece is interesting for his conclusion. In the second-to-last paragraph, Farmer writes:

We should no longer allow extreme interest groups of any stripe to use the fallacy of the slippery slope to avoid the hard but necessary choices of our time. Otherwise, we will turn into a people disfigured by the triumph of extremists, armed to the teeth with our wadcutters and assault rifles as we eye with suspicion neighbors who may be as scary but ultimately harmless as Boo Radley from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So, after arguing that the slippery slope analogy is a fallacy, and smearing "extremists" who attempt to stand on principle, Farmer advances the principle that extremists are bad, lest they start us down the road to an armed camp of universal suspicion. Sounds like Farmer fears a slippery slope.

Farmer’s whole premise is self-contradictory and debate-stifling, and therefor invalid. 
That said, it’s true that the pro-gun rights argument--that the banning of assault weapons is a slippery slope that will necessarily lead to the banning of all guns--is not in and of itself a valid or complete argument. The question is, why is it a slippery slope? The primary principle, as I see it, is: the individual’s right to self-defense. I don’t know of anyone of consequence who is arguing against that principle. And, as I previously argued,  if the individual has a right to defend himself in the instance where law enforcement is not there to protect him, it follows that the individual has the right to possess the means to protect himself—which means, the right to own a gun.  
As long as both sides agree on the principle of self-defense, and on the right to own guns for recreational purposes (the principle of the pursuit of personal happiness), then on that basis we can argue about which weapons should be legal, the propriety of background checks, etc. Only on the basis of common principles can we have legitimate compromise. If one side wants to ban all guns for law-abiding citizens--either overtly or covertly through draconian regulations--while the other upholds Second Amendment rights, then no compromise is proper or even possible. No person of integrity compromises his moral principles. To my knowledge, no one except the far Left seriously wants to ban guns, so as long as we firmly uphold the proper principles, the danger of a slippery slope is minimal. 

The bottom line is that Farmer's attack on the slippery slope analogy and extremism is an attack on principles-based thinking. This is not new. There is another name for Farmer's premises--pragmatism. Pragmatism is an escape hatch for those who wish to avoid the necessity of considering the consequences of their actions. This is Farmer's real goal; to preemptively open that escape hatch in a year when gun control appears ready to occupy a piece of the political center stage.

Related Reading:

Gun Control Should Focus On Principles, Not Guns

The Virtue of Extremism

Extremists vs. the Moderates: Why the Left Keeps Winning, and the Right has been Powerless to Stop It

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