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The Cure Is… More Liberty

in Communicating Liberty, Marriage and Family by Sharon Harris Comments are off

Frequently when there is a sudden expansion of liberty, new potential problems arise and become reasons for concern. The answer to these temporary problems is always…more liberty!

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, same-sex couples gained the long-sought right to marry – something libertarians have been working on for decades. Most libertarians celebrated this as a great victory for liberty, a landmark. (Libertarian writer Sheldon Richman has an excellent article on why libertarians should welcome this decision.)

MORE libertyHowever, some libertarians, and many non-libertarians, have raised some legitimate concerns about new problems created by this expansion of liberty. Among them:

  • This decision emphasizes the fact that the government is in the position of granting permission for marriage. True liberty demands that there be no government involvement in marriage at all.
  • Government may now attempt to use anti-discrimination laws against people who don’t support gay marriage. Business owners who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds may face government violence if they refuse to provide services to gay couples or otherwise discriminate against them. Indeed, the ACLU has indicated it will support some compulsion along these lines.
  • Some voluntary sexual arrangements are still illegal (prostitution, polygamy, etc.).

Why are they not equally protected under the law?

Libertarians need to be ready to argue that the answer to any and all such concerns is… more liberty.

That’s true on every issue. On this issue specifically:

  • Government should be removed from the issue of marriage altogether. People should not have to get government’s permission to engage in peaceful voluntary personal relationships. We should reject what Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) accurately calls “the false premise that government licensure is necessary to validate the intimate relationships of consenting adults.”>
  • Libertarians should be ready to defend the rights of business owners and others who peacefully object to recognizing same-sex marriage. As Reason writer Robby Soave notes, “If religious freedom does not include the freedom for individuals to peacefully decline involvement in private commercial activities they find objectionable, it’s a meaningless concept.” We should learn to do this in a way that emphasizes that our concern is not with one side or the other, but rather with liberty. We should show people the value of liberty and true tolerance — how only liberty offers an answer to the concerns of people on every side of this issue.
  • We should prepare to further explore and expand the principle behind this decision. If gays are free to marry, why aren’t all people free to do any peaceful things they want with their own lives, bodies, and possessions? Why aren’t people free to, for example, smoke marijuana, start a business without government permission, and so on?

Libertarians will gain from all this in several ways.

  1. We win new people to our side, and demonstrate that libertarians are always consistently on the side of individual liberty.
  2. >We show that liberty — always — is the answer to political problems.
  3. >We have the opportunity to raise the “Overton Window” on some key issues: that is, we have the chance to bring currently little-discussed libertarian positions — like legalizing prostitution and ending all government involvement in many other peaceful personal lifestyle decisions — into the mainstream political debate. (The Overton Window is a major communication concept. Learn about it in my article “Raising the Overton Window.”)

Legalization of gay marriage is a great step forward — and the controversies ahead will give us valuable opportunities to advance liberty even further.

As always, do this with the key rules of great communication the Advocates has taught for 30 years (and collected in my book, available in e-book format here, How to Be a Super Communicator for Liberty): use soundbites, proper presentation, and documented facts. And always do it with friendliness, kindness and compassion.

Raising the Overton Window

in Communicating Liberty, Liberator Online Archives by Sharon Harris Comments are off

(From the One-Minute Liberty Tip section in Volume 19, No. 7 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

In the 1990s I had the great pleasure of meeting the late Joseph P. Overton at a leadership seminar at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Joe was senior vice president of Mackinac. He was brilliant, charismatic, inspiring and fun to be with. The liberty movement lost a great leader when he died in a plane crash on June 30, 2003.

One of Joe’s many contributions to liberty was the popularizing of a vital concept that now bears his name: the Overton Window.

Overton Window: A Model of Policy Change
The Overton Window is explained by Mackinac this way:

“Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area… only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable.”

“This ‘window’ of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election.”

“In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.”

This is a powerful concept. You can see it clearly when you illustrate it, as Joe did, by lining up possible positions on a political issue in order from more free to less free.

Let’s do this with drug policy. Here are a few positions on this issue, lined up (starting from the bottom) from most oppressive to least oppressive:

All drugs are legal for adults to buy, sell, and consume
“Hard drugs” legal but only with doctor’s prescription
Some other drugs in addition to marijuana also legal; other still illegal
Marijuana legal to own, grow, sell with permission from government
Marijuana legal to buy but not sell
Marijuana legal for medical purposes only, with doctor’s prescription
Marijuana illegal but only minimal punishment
All drugs illegal with stiff penalties
Mandatory drug tests for all Americans
Harsh punishment for drug use
Death penalty for drug use, possession, sale

See the two lines I made in the middle of that list? Those lines show the area of today’s most politically-acceptable options. That’s an approximation of where we are right now.

Those lines show the top and the bottom of the Overton Window at this time.

Those policies inside the Overton Window are politically acceptable. It doesn’t mean they are right, universally agreed on, or that they are law. It just means that people holding or seeking political office can say they support them, and still get elected.

In contrast, the policies outside the Overton Window are not very politically acceptable. It is far harder to advocate them and get elected. Not impossible, but more difficult.

The Overton Window makes our goal as libertarians clear: to raise the window. To push it ever higher. To make currently unpopular libertarian positions acceptable. To bring those positions into the mainstream political debate.

As we do so, we also raise the bottom part of the window, so that previous authoritarian solutions are no longer acceptable.

How do we do this? Surprisingly, not by electing politicians, according to the Mackinac Center:

“Many believe that politicians move the window, but that’s actually rare. In our understanding, politicians typically don’t determine what is politically acceptable; more often they react to it and validate it. Generally speaking, policy change follows political change, which itself follows social change. The most durable policy changes are those that are undergirded by strong social movements.”

Politicians are lagging indicators; that is, they usually reflect what is acceptable, rather than making radical political change.

The Overton Window model gives us some major insights into how we can effectively change government policy. Rather than just hoping to elect the “right people” to office, it suggests that the most powerful way to changing government policy lies in changing the views of the public as to what is acceptable.

Do this, and the politicians will follow. Witness the growing popularity of the movement to relegalize marijuana. It’s not a movement that was brought about by politicians. Rather, politicians are reluctantly accepting it because of the years of work by liberty activists to educate the public to demand reform.

That means our job as libertarian communicators is to constantly be pushing the window up — gently but persuasively — in the direction of liberty. In our discussions with people, in our outreach efforts, in our casual conversations.

When, for example, relegalizing medical marijuana is politically possible, we support that — but we also argue that marijuana should be legal across the board, for everyone. And as that idea begins to win, our job is to push it further, until we reach the full libertarian ideal: adults are free to use whatever substances they wish.

Similarly, on taxation, our goal right now might be a particular tax cut or reducing the tax burden. But we also want to argue for something that’s now outside the Window — like ending the income tax, for example — in order to introduce that idea into the debate and thus raise the Overton Window. And as that idea gains traction, we discuss more seriously the libertarian ideal: ending all taxes.

Important: This does NOT mean that we should deliberately pursue gradualism or avoid discussing long-range and ultimate libertarian goals. We don’t have to move one small step up the Overton Window at a time. I strongly agree with the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.” I strongly believe we should be ready and happy to argue persuasively for the full libertarian position any time. Indeed, doing so is part of raising the Overton Window.

However, during a political discussion in which there is general agreement on a particular libertarian reform, there is often a great opportunity for us to push the discussion a bit further — to raise the Overton Window higher. Be alert for such opportunities.

This also suggests that, for most of us, using effective and persuasive communication methods, such as those taught by the Advocates, is crucial. While we need our Menckenish curmudgeons and pundits, most of us can’t do that well. We can be most effective by winning the trust of our neighbors and community members, bringing them to our side.

Ultimately it is public opinion, not political power, that changes society. Which means we have in our hands the ability to make bold political change. Which means the more successfully and persuasively we can communicate our ideas, the greater our chance for victory.

So let’s use that power to push the Overton Window up, up, up until it’s wide-open — and we welcome in the fresh air of liberty.

*  *  *

More on the Overton Window can be found at this website: The Overton Window, A Model of Policy Change by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This web page has several short essays on the Overton Window, illustrations of the Window in action, videos, thoughts on how to move the Window up, and more. Essential.

Also of interest: Murray Rothbard challenges gradualism in his essay “The Case for Radical Idealism.