“I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." —Milton Freidman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1982
You've probably had this experience at some point: You've read about a great new idea for reforming government policy and thought, "This makes so much sense; why don't lawmakers just do it?" But months pass, and you don't hear politicians even discuss the idea, let alone act on it.
There's a reason: Ideas take time to produce changes in policy. This can be frustrating, but it also means that ideas policymakers refuse to countenance now may yet — with patience — become law.
The late Joseph Overton, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, 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.
The Overton Window of Political Possibility is a model developed to explain public policy change. When public policies in a given area, such as education or labor, are arranged from freest to least free, only a relatively narrow window of options will be considered politically acceptable. This window of politically acceptable policies is not defined primarily by what politicians would prefer; rather, it is defined by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. Hence, the window shifts to include new policies or exclude old ones not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton Window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?
Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.
The Overton Window reflects what society believes, which can be as easily influenced by truth and facts as it can be by inaccurate or deceptive information. Even mistakes can shift the window. The massive underestimate of Medicare costs probably contributed to the program’s creation in the 1960s. The false belief that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq contributed to support for that war. Click here for an interactive gadget of the Overton Window.
At any given moment, the “window” includes a range of policies considered to be politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public office. Overton arranged the spectrum on a vertical axis of “more free” and “less free” in regard to government intervention. When the window moves or expands, ideas can accordingly become more or less politically acceptable. The degrees of acceptance of public ideas can be described roughly as:
The Overton Window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Opponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable. Overton feared that using a left-right scale would politicize the scale.
The example Joe Overton often used to illustrate his window theory was the Michigan school choice issue during the 1980s and ‘90s. The political spectrum for education ranges from full parental choice on the high end to a complete government monopoly without private schools, home schooling, charter schools or any other school choice on the low end. On this spectrum the politically possible range of options was very limited during the 1980s. Politicians could advocate minor, incremental changes for home schooling, and private schools were part of the status quo, but charter schools were definitely out of bounds for a politician to seriously contemplate.
As citizens became aware of education options and their success in other places, the political climate became more favorable and the window of political possibilities in Michigan began to expand to where politicians could advocate home schooling, school choice and even charter schools without losing at the polls. Not only was the upper limit of the window expanded, but the lower boundary has also moved upwards as well — making it politically unwise to push for restrictions on the education freedoms that have been gained.
Home schooling is here to stay, charter schools are well established, and school choice continues to gain ground. In fact, in some parts of Michigan it is now even possible to run for office on a platform that includes the Universal Tuition Tax Credit — another Overton innovation — a situation that was unthinkable just 10 years ago.
Perhaps the Overton Window theory is best summed up by a quote from Milton Friedman in his preface to the 1982 edition of Capitalism and Freedom: "That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable."
A long-term focus on shifting the Overton Window allows a think tank to follow its ideals and perform a genuinely positive public service, instead of being constrained to merely advocating those policies that are currently possible. When the window of political possibilities is moved along the political spectrum, the impossible becomes desirable and the simply desirable becomes imperative. This is the true influence of a think tank — shaping the political climate of future legislative and legal debates by researching, educating, involving and inspiring.
Today there are conservative think tanks such as the CATO Institute, Reason Foundation, Ayn Rand Institute, and the Heritage Foundation that are providing the public with information that is slowly moving the Overton Window in an upwards direction, a direction that would have been out of the question ten years ago. Also the rise of conservative talk radio throughout the country has added its influence to the Window.
Starting in 2009, with the advent of ObamaCare, the Tea Party movement sprung up all across the nation. The influence of the Tea Party movement was felt in the Congressional elections of 2010 with the Republicans, many of the candidates backed by the Tea Party, gained control of the House by picking up some 66 seats. This influence was also made known at the state level with over 650 republicans being elected to state legislatures and state houses across the nation.
In tonight’s CNN/Tea Party debate the first 30 minutes were devoted to the future of Social Security and Medicare. In past years these programs were considered untouchable by career politicians. While talking about the possible collapse of Medicare and Social Security politicians would not put forth any meaningful reform programs simply push the problem down the road. Issues such as means testing and raising the eligibility age were just not politically possible.
Now with the public’s increased knowledge of the issues with these two programs, knowledge that has been driven by the think tanks and radio talkers the Overton Window is beginning to move up the scale from Radical to Acceptable and Sensible and is approaching Popular. In the 2012 presidential campaign each political party will have to put forth solutions for saving these two programs.
There are other issues that are beginning to move up on Overton Window. Issues like Government regulations, government departments, education, government sending and government borrowing. Issues that were mere platitudes on the lips of politicians ten years ago are now demanding firm policy commitments from these same politicians by the public.
Over the past 100 years we have seen the Overton Window drop to the bottom of the scale where the public has been accepting more and more government control on their lives. The politicians have responded to this by creating laws, policies and governmental agencies to exert this control. Agencies such as the EPA, Department of Education, and Department of Energy were created to respond to the public’s need for more government, wealth redistribution, and something called social justice. These were the ideas that were being put forth by the left-wing think tanks, academia, unions, and progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. These politicians were merely giving the public what was acceptable to them in order to remain in power.
Today many conservatives and Libertarians are impatient with the progress being made towards more liberty and less government. They are looking for a candidate on a white horse that can lead them back to strict adherence to the Constitution. While this is a noble and desirable goal we cannot achieve it in one big step. It will take time and effort from conservatives, Libertarians, and Tea Party members to continually push the Overton Window upwards — the politicians will follow your lead.