The Overton Window and Free Speech

The Overton Window is a model of policy change conceived by my late friend, colleague and Mackinac Center senior vice president, Joe Overton. The concept was humbly born as part of a fundraising brochure and later a training session for think tank executives. It is now, however, firmly embedded in the vernacular of seemingly every political news outlet. I recently explained the window for WNYC Studio’s “On the Media” radio program, which more than 450 NPR stations help relay to 2 million listeners.

Public policies can be arranged along a spectrum from less free (more government) to more free (less government). The Overton Window defines the range of public policies considered politically acceptable, or more or less mainstream. Ideas outside the window, on either side, are considered too radical by comparison; they lack sufficient public and political support to become law.

The model’s power comes from showing how the range of what constitutes acceptable options can shift when think tanks and other influencers articulate, study, develop, and test alternatives to the status quo — policies outside the Overton Window.

Citizens must be able to advocate unpopular ideas if public policy is to catch up with social changes, since new ideas are, by definition, not popular. But a future of improved policies is increasingly threatened by a growing intolerance for free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports it has received 908 requests for help in defending against college campus speech restrictions, including those at large public universities.

Scientific progress provides an analogy for how free speech drives social change and the policies it produces. Scientific norms become outdated when new ideas prove the old ideas wrong or when new ideas show stronger explanatory power. At any given time, potentially hundreds of researchers are trying to prove today’s scientific norms wrong by testing them against alternative ideas or trying to reproduce their results.

This relentless challenge is the core of the scientific method. Without it, it’s hard to imagine where scientific progress would come from. We’d be stuck with incorrect notions like phrenology (character and other traits are determined by skull shape), geocentrism (Earth is the center of the universe), the “bad air” theory of disease (supplanted by today’s germ theory of disease) and peptic ulcers would be explained by stress and spicy food (the key turns out to be gut bacteria).

Free speech is to social progress and its policies what the scientific method is to scientific progress. Without the freedom to articulate new ideas in public, we’d be forever stuck with the ideas that once prevailed. Consider these once unacceptable ideas: women’s suffrage, strong environmental protection, civil rights protection for minorities, the right to form labor unions, representative government (vs. monarchy), gay rights, intolerance of drunken driving, and interracial marriage. This list, too, is endless.

Nobody believes that every shift of the Overton Window is beneficial. That’s politics. But without any way to shift the window, we could never change the status quo, which isn’t always beneficial, either. Restrictions on speech are fine if you like being ruled by people who know they are always right. Free speech, by contrast, is the foundation for the work of think tanks, or for any person or institution interested in social progress, and it must not be infringed.