Elected officials cannot enact whatever legislation they like. They find themselves bound by what is popular or at least their sense of what is popular. They can only pass laws in a narrow band of ideas, and that range is called the Overton Window. It is named for the late Joseph P. Overton, a vice president at the Mackinac Center. Joe Overton’s work still influences Mackinac Center decisions and is the inspiration for the Overton Window podcast.
It is a special treat to host the Mackinac Center’s president emeritus, Larry Reed, and current president, Joe Lehman, to talk about the first years of the Mackinac Center, Joe Overton’s work, and his insight about windows of political possibility.
“I met Joe Overton when I got off the plane in Midland in 1986,” Joe Lehman says. A Dow Chemical worker, Overton was assigned to take care of Lehman, who was interviewing for a chemical engineer job with the company.
Larry Reed met him a few months after that, at a conference in Seattle, shortly after Reed accepted a role as president of the newly-founded Mackinac Center in Midland. Overton soon offered to volunteer for the think tank.
“Joe invited me to that conference in Seattle,” Lehman says. “I had just gotten married and used all of my vacation and didn’t want to go on vacation without my wife having just been married for a few months.”
“I brought him on first as a volunteer in the fundraising area because we didn’t have the funding yet to hire him,” Reed says. Overton went to law school and started working part-time for the Mackinac Center.
Reed was able to raise some funds and make Overton an offer in 1992.
“I didn’t have to twist his arm,” Reed says. “I think he liked his job at Dow very much, but it was also apparent to me as I got to know him that he was passionate about ideas of individual liberty and free markets.”
Overton then tried to recruit Lehman to join the Mackinac Center.
“I told him, ‘That may be good for you, Joe,’ but my exact words were, ‘I’ll never leave Dow,’” Lehman says. “He prevailed upon me and in January 1995 I joined Joe Overton and Larry at the Mackinac Center.”
“As we grew it became obvious to me that I needed somebody who had a good ear for internal organization and management,” Reed says. “He was absolutely invaluable at that. He built our infrastructure internally and he brought on Joe Lehman who had similar characteristics and background, and wow, I had a management team that was second to none. The three of us together were a great constellation and I’ll always remember the phenomenal things that we did as a team.”
“It was Joe who forced me to systematize those ideas and take them to their roots. Joe was better read than I was and I looked to Joe as a philosophical guide for making sure that my beliefs seemed consistent,” Lehman says. “What we had going for us was our philosophic consistency, that’s what made us different in the political ecosystem in Michigan.”
That consistency led the Mackinac Center to oppose Gov. John Engler’s proposal to offer favors and preferences to select companies, a form of industrial policy. Overton coordinated a study about why this was a bad idea.
“It made headlines around the state. It prevented the governor from passing his legislation on the first attempt,” Lehman says. “That’s when the public knew that we were truly independent of the political parties.”
“He was one of the first to realize that if we’re going to make big changes in Michigan we have to work on labor issues, since this is a strong union state,” says Reed. “Unions had enjoyed some special privileges that we thought did not make good sense for the state.”
“Raising three years of funding in advance for a policy initiative allowed us to attract Robert Hunter as our first Director of Labor Policy,” Lehman says. “He was Ronald Reagan’s first appointee to the National Labor Relations Board. So, you’ve got these burgeoning little state think tanks all around the country, and I don’t think any of them had anyone on their staff of Bob’s stature.”
The Overton Window came about as a way to explain the mission of Michigan’s new think tank.
“In the early days of the Mackinac Center, Joe was wrestling with a method of convincing people to support the Mackinac Center,” says Lehman. “So there needed to be a way to explain how a think tank creates an environment where elected officials can do the right thing.”
Overton came up with a sliding window that shifts between more or less government control, with the policies in the window being what politicians could enact.
“Joe actually created a little cardboard mock-up of a brochure that had the sliding window on it. It proved too difficult and too expensive to produce,” Lehman says. “Joe never called it the Overton Window. He called it the Window of political possibilities, which is really a think tank-y name, isn’t it?”
“It became a very important element in our effort to convince people to invest in ideas, for sure,” says Reed. “If you’re just focused on politicians, it’s like locking the barn door after the horses left. A fifty-or sixty-year-old politician isn’t going to dramatically shift his ideas unless the public has shifted and tells him he better or he’ll lose.”
“Every idea that we take for granted now started out as somebody’s unthinkable idea,” Lehman says. “When the Mackinac Center opened its doors in 1987, it was unthinkable that Michigan, of all places, would become a right-to-work state. Only a think tank working with a time horizon longer than a two-year election cycle could shift the Overton Window in the right direction.”
“Why did right-to-work go from unthinkable to something the people wanted? Because the Mackinac Center and our allies and groups that thought like us said that workers should not be compelled to support a union,” says Lehman.
A Democratic-majority legislature and Democratic governor repealed this law in 2023, but Lehman notes that polling still shows that people still didn’t like it when employees are compelled to support a union. “I bet some of those lawmakers who voted to repeal that law are sweating about it now because they’ll have to answer for it in the next election,” Lehman says.
“I think I learned more from Joe about character and its importance, than I ever did from everybody else. It wasn’t because he gave lectures about it. He lived it. And I saw it. He lit up a room when he walked into it, and people knew right from the start that this guy was straight as an arrow, honest as the day is long, and is a guy who means what he says and says what he means,” says Reed. “He really was a fine Christian gentleman of solid character. He was helping people quietly, privately, and humbly at every opportunity and never did it for the fame or the fortune or the attention it might get him.”
Overton was also curious about where new communications technologies would take us.
“One thing that Joe got right was to understand the immense transformative power of the internet,” Lehman says. “I think Joe would be deeply distressed by the coarse turn of public discourse; the name calling, the lack of depth in analysis. It is very hard as a public policy research institute to adapt to an environment where people don’t have as many opportunities to be surrounded by well-thought out ideas.”
“In the long run I’m still an optimist. That’s in part because I understand how important ideas are. They can change the world. It’s just a matter of getting even better at persuading people of the good ideas,” says Reed. “People of solid character, of whom Joe Overton was such a great exemplar, do not give up on what they know to be right.”
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
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