The “slippery slope.” It’s a favorite argument of reform opponents everywhere, from all segments of the ideological spectrum, but one which has been particularly exercised by Republicans in recent years in arguing against any number of reforms.
“It’s a slippery slope,” we were told for years by those who blocked legislation to extend our anti-discrimination laws to gays and lesbians. This seemingly innocuous civil rights legislation was an integral part of a calculated gay agenda, opponents insisted, that would inevitably lead to gay marriage, or worse. Likewise, when some state senators dared to even broach the idea of a high-earners income tax this past session—perhaps merely a percent or two on incomes over $1 million—Republicans dutifully warned against the slippery slope that would inevitably lead to a broad based income tax with higher rates and lower income thresholds.
And now that President Obama appears to be leaning toward a “public option” as a lynchpin of his health care reform proposal, opponents are of course trotting out the slippery slope rhetoric one more time, arguing that merely offering consumers the option of buying into a government run health insurance plan takes us an unsteady step toward an inevitable tumble into (gasp) “socialized medicine.”
And you know what? They’re absolutely right.
Modest reforms such as these do serve as slippery slopes toward more substantive policy initiatives, at least if done right. Indeed, that, for the most part, is the intent of their backers.
For more than two decades Washington Republicans steadfastly held off gay civil rights legislation, but within a few years of its passage a series of incremental expansions of domestic partner benefits has created same-sex marriage rights here in virtually everything but name. And the name will come too, not much further down the line. That was the strategy, and it’s working.
Likewise, there are many tax reform advocates like me who couldn’t care less which income tax variation is first to make it onto the books, as long as it can stand up to a vote of the people. A millionaire’s tax? Fine by me, even if it doesn’t generate much money. For I fervently believe that once Washingtonians become accustomed to a personal income tax, rates will creep up, and the exemption creep down, adding a broader based income tax to our revenue portfolio.
And of course, the health insurance companies should fear a government run public option, for if they can’t compete—ie, they can’t provide comparable coverage at a comparable price—the market will inevitably move toward the single payer-like model they dread most.
Now some might characterize this admission as cynical and dishonest, but good policy done right is inherently a slippery slope toward better policy. As it should be. And it’s a slope we slide down only with the approval of a majority of voters.
Only a decade ago a strong majority of voters opposed gay marriage, but today, not so much. The more we normalize the so-called “gay lifestyle”… the more we become comfortable with our friends and family and neighbors living openly gay lives with all the rights and privileges the rest of us enjoy, the more we shrug “so what” at the notion of teh gays calling their state sanctioned unions “marriage” too. This slippery slope is what folks like State Sen. Ed Murray counted on when they embraced the incrementalist strategy that has been so successful in Washington state. There was nothing dishonest or deceitful about it, and as we’ll learn by the imminent failure of Referendum 71, the voting public has slid at least as far down that slope as the state legislature.
And neither should the public fear the slippery slope of tax reform in Washington state. Would most backers of a high-earners income tax like to see higher rates and lower income thresholds? Sure, but since every tax increase inevitably comes before the people via referendum or initiative, it makes absolutely no sense to get too far ahead of voters. Start with 2% on household incomes over $1 million, and eventually we’ll inch toward 3% on incomes over $250,000. After that, who knows, though with voters holding a veto, I doubt we’d ever see the household income threshold fall much below $150,000, (nor would I personally support such a low threshold without substantial reforms elsewhere in our tax structure.)
The point is, the slippery slope isn’t something imposed on an unsuspecting public, but rather the natural trajectory of public opinion in response to well crafted, well executed public policy. You see, the reason insurance companies and their surrogates oppose the public option—the reason they fear it to be a slippery slope—is that they’re afraid it will work. And that when we see that it can work, and that it can provide more access and equal or better care at a lower cost than the private sector, that voters will demand an expansion of this program too.