The Overton Window
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Learn how the Overton Window relates to the struggle for freedom!

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Joseph Overton 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. Click here for a video explaining the Overton Window.

Learn How the Overton Window Relates to the Struggle for Freedom!

Special essays that can be e-mailed to you!

Civil Society: Moral Arguments for Limiting Government”: The Overton Window model suggests that the key to changing government policy lies in changing the views of the public. This, however, takes more than facts and logic. As Mackinac Center President Joseph G. Lehman argues in this essay, winning the battle for people’s hearts and minds through “economic analysis alone is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.” E-mail me free copies of this and the other special essays!

The Inspiring Story of Thomas Clarkson”: There may be no greater example of shifting the Overton Window than the story of the man most responsible for ending slavery in the British Empire: Thomas Clarkson. Dedicating himself to abolition in 1785 and triumphing against impossible odds, Clarkson toiled for decades to organize a nationwide citizens’ movement that transformed public opinion through books, pamphlets, research, petitions, lawsuits, mailings, gatherings and commercial art. In this moving monograph, Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed brings Clarkson’s story to life. E-mail me free copies of this and the other special essays!

Government, Poverty and Self-Reliance”: The Overton Window model tells us that when society unites behind sound principles, its political servants will too. In this eye-opening essay, Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed unearths the remarkable consistency and eloquence with which 19th century presidents fought poverty by opposing 20th century-style welfare programs. E-mail me free copies of this and the other special essays!

Great Myths of the Great Depression”: Eighty years ago, the Overton Window shifted decidedly toward government intervention in the American economy. According to the popular view, this transformation occurred because capitalism failed and precipitated an economic collapse. But in this monograph, Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed questions this narrative and suggests the trend toward government intervention continued not because of the government’s successes, but because of its failures. E-mail me free copies of this and the other special essays!

Investing in Ideas”: If the views of society shift the Overton Window, then what shifts the views of society? The answer, writes Mackinac Center President Emeritus Lawrence W. Reed, is ideas. In this cogent and compact essay, Reed argues that ideas are more powerful than armies — and that anyone who wants to invest in society should invest in ideas first. E-mail me free copies of this and the other special essays!



A Brief Explanation of the Overton Window

By Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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.

Overton Window of Political Possibility

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. No government schools
  2. Parents pay for only the education they choose
  3. Private and home schools monitored, not regulated
  4. Tuition tax credits
  5. Tuition vouchers
  6. Private and home schooling moderately regulated
  7. Charter schools
  8. Public‐school choice
  9. State‐mandated curricula
  10. Private and home schooling highly regulated;
    parents pay twice
  11. Home schooling illegal
  12. Private schools illegal
  13. Compulsory indoctrination in government schools
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. No government ownership, control
    or monitoring of energy markets
  2. Government monitors open competition in energy markets
  3. Energy firms somewhat regulated; no subsidies
  4. Energy firms highly regulated; “alternative energy” subsidized
  5. Government allows only a few market competitors, approves rates
  6. Government protects monopoly energy suppliers, sets rates
  7. Government-protected energy monopolies highly regulated;
    alternative energy mandated and subsidized
  8. Government controls “private” energy firms; consumption rationed
  9. All energy provided by government;
    “over-consumption” criminalized
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. Anyone can own, trade, and use any weapon
  2. Only very powerful weapons restricted,
    very dangerous people restricted
  3. Most people can carry a weapon without permission
  4. Governments “shall issue” concealed weapons permits
  5. Governments “may issue” concealed weapons permits;
    tight restrictions
  6. Only dealers are regulated and registered,
    not individuals or weapons
  7. Certain broad classes of weapons, like handguns,
    registered with government
  8. All weapons registered with government
  9. Lots of regulations on possession, trade, and use of weapons
  10. Heavy regulations on new guns and owners;
    current guns and owners grandfathered in
  11. Small number of government-approved people may own weapons
  12. All gun trade operated and controlled by government
  13. Only government can own and use weapons;
    private ownership and use is illegal
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. All welfare assistance is private—
    families, religious organizations, charitable associations
  2. Government welfare is generous,
    but strict requirements for recipients
  3. Government welfare is generous,
    but lax requirements for recipients
  4. Government provides safety net of last resort—
    temporary, limited assistance
  5. Government welfare is entitlement with few limits or restrictions
  6. Government more generous;
    starts to crowd out private assistance
  7. Private assistance highly regulated
  8. Private assistance outlawed
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

The migration from mere ideas to the law of the land can be described by a model called the Overton Window. This is the term my colleagues and I gave to a theory of change developed by the Mackinac Center's late vice president, Joseph Overton. After Joe died in 2003, I built a presentation around his idea, and I still use it to show how think tanks can shift public policy.

Joe shared his abstract concept with me in the mid-1990s. He observed that any collection of public policies within a policy area, such as education, can be arranged in order from more free to less free (or from less government intervention to more). To avoid comparison with the left-right political spectrum, he arranged the policies from bottom (less free) to top (more free).

At any one time, some group of adjacent policies along the freedom spectrum fall into a "window of political possibility." Policies inside the window are politically acceptable, meaning officeholders believe they can support the policies and survive the next election. Policies outside the window, either higher or lower, are politically unacceptable at the moment. If you shift the position or size of the window, you change what is politically possible.

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.

For example, Prohibition was a policy change driven by a social movement that did not prove strong enough to sustain the policy. Certain environmental policies that have proven durable are backed by strong social movements that favor those policies — or at least the idea they represent.

When social and political forces bring about change, the window of political possibility shifts up or down the spectrum and can also expand to include more policy options or shrink to include fewer. The window presents a menu of policy choices to politicians: From their point of view, relatively safe choices are inside the window and politically riskier choices (or bolder ones, if you prefer) are outside.

Lawmakers who support policies outside the window are one of two kinds — true leaders who have the rare ability to shift the window by themselves, or politicians who risk electoral defeat because they are perceived as out of touch. This explains why key lawmakers in 2009 and 2010 were reluctant to support a massive federal health care bill seen as unpopular with the people. Officeholders knew a vote outside the window would subject them to the political Furies, as in fact it has.

The Overton Window doesn't describe everything, but it describes one big thing: Politicians will rarely support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will do what they feel they can do without risking electoral defeat, given the current political environment shaped by ideas, social movements and societal sensibilities.

That's why it's important for the Mackinac Center and others to educate citizens on the nation's founding principles of limited government and free markets. Public policies rooted in those ideas produced freedom and prosperity unmatched by any other society in history. The same policies can return us to prosperity now. A people animated by our nation's founding principles will shift the window of political possibility toward greater freedom.

The politicians will ultimately follow.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the Overton Window?

A: 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.

The Overton Window is described in more detail at the top of this page and in an article here.

Q: Who created the concept of the Overton Window?

A: The Overton Window was developed in the mid-1990s by the late Joseph P. Overton, who was senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy at the time of his death in 2003. (For a brief biography and a comprehensive list of Overton's commentaries and studies, click here.) Following Overton's passing, the Mackinac Center's current president, Joseph Lehman, built a presentation around Overton's idea and shared it with other leaders of state-based free-market think tanks.

Q: Can the Overton Window be shifted by lies, distortions or misunderstandings?

A: Yes, but it’s obviously wrong to intentionally disseminate misleading information. 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.

Q: What is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy?

A: The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions. The Mackinac Center assists policymakers, scholars, business people, the media and the public by providing objective analysis of Michigan issues. The goal of all Center reports, commentaries and educational programs is to equip Michigan citizens and other decision makers to better evaluate policy options. For more information, please click here.

Q: What is the connection between the Mackinac Center and Glenn Beck's new book, "The Overton Window"?

A: The book is based on Beck’s adaptation of the Overton Window concept developed by the Mackinac Center, a Michigan think tank. A character in the book reveals the origin of the concept to be a think tank in the Midwest. The Mackinac Center was not involved in the creation of the book. Beck's "The Overton Window" is a work of fiction scheduled for release on June 15, 2010. Beck has discussed the Overton Window concept on his television show, however, just as others have discussed the idea. It is a testament to the vitality of Overton's ideas that years after Overton's passing, a nationally syndicated talk show host would find the Overton Window compelling and want to share the idea with an audience of millions.

Q: How can I help the Mackinac Center promote better public policy in Michigan and reach as many people as possible?

A: The Mackinac Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that depends on thousands of generous contributors like you. For more information on how you can become a member, please click here.

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Links

Joe Lehman Discusses the Overton Window on Glenn Beck's TV Show

Joe Lehman Explains How the Overton Window Shifts

Joe Lehman, Glenn Beck and the History of the Overton Window

Lehman Discusses the Overton Window on Glenn Beck's Radio Show

An Introduction to the Overton Window of Political Possibilities
The Overton Window Opens to Another Audience (audio)
Don't Look Now: Right-to-Work Is in the Overton Window
Overton wasn't just another Joe - Detroit Free Press

"Like" our Overton Window facebook page.

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