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.
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.
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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.“