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'Overton Window' must be moved toward freedom

'Overton Window' must be moved toward freedom

Wayne Hoffman
June 14, 2010
Wayne Hoffman
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June 14, 2010

I challenge conventional thinking because too many people believe efforts to restrict freedom are appropriate, necessary and natural. I got a good dose of that last week after I had the temerity to tell people that police shouldn’t be running dragnets to catch Idahoans not wearing their seat belts.

“But it saves lives!” well-meaning Idahoans e-mailed me.

Perhaps the government, concerned with couchpotatoism, should mandate that our TV sets automatically turn off after a certain number of hours. Over time, we’d forget the days when we were allowed to watch TV for however long we wanted.

“We used to sit for hours in front of the TV!” our kids will tell their children’s children someday.

“Really, Grandpa?”

“Yeah, it used to be deadly. People used to watch sitcoms and reruns of ‘Law and Order’ for hours on end. Thousands died.”

“Good thing the government banned it.”

“Yup. I hear some people want to end the ban and be allowed to sit and watch TV for however long they want.”

“Wow, Grandpa. That’s terrible! What about the children?!”

This might appear to be a journey into hyperbole. Hopefully so. But those ideas that were once impossible to believe are now a matter of public policy in this country. It’s because people are increasingly conditioned to accept big-government solutions, and then they demand the same from their politicians.

Enter the Overton Window. The Overton Window is a political theory advanced by the late Joseph Overton.

Until his death in 2003, Overton was the vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s sister organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Overton correctly observed that public policy options can be arranged from freest to least free, but in that lineup of options, only a narrow range of ideas — a window, if you will — will have political viability.

Politicians are only willing to accept ideas they think will help them be re-elected. The window moves based on societal pressures, and politicians, worried about their electability, respond.

This week, Glenn Beck’s new book, a political thriller called “The Overton Window,” will go on sale. Beck’s book is based the notion Overton developed, that the window of political acceptance can be shifted. Over time, ideas that were once considered far too radical become normal and customary — so normal that you don’t give it a second thought.

Indeed, the concept of freedom — and the role of government — has shifted so much that to tell people that they’re no longer free is no different from telling them the sky is purple. It sounds impossible, because the window of political possibility has shifted to toward ideas that restrict freedom.

It is our job to promote ideas that move the window back, to foster ideas that result in people being more free. Those ideas are so powerful that I believe the public will ultimately demand the support of those concepts that embrace liberty.

The Overton Window will move. Public policy ideas that favor freedom will become politically viable, and politicians, fearing loss of their jobs, will respond.

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