Tumbling in and out of the Overton Window

Who decides if an idea is ‘radical’ or a practical possibility? Why are some apparently sensible ideas politically unthinkable? It’s a question that many of us will have asked, and one attempt to explain the answer comes from Joseph P Overton of the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy.

He used the metaphor of a window, a political view of what is possible. You’ve probably heard of it. If an idea sits within the ‘Overton Window’, a politician can discuss it without risk. People might have opposing views or rival ideas, but it’s not outrageous. It can be proposed without fear of censure, de-selection, or derision in the newspapers.

Ideas move towards the statute books, Overton suggested, in a sequence something like this:

  • unthinkable
  • radical
  • acceptable
  • sensible
  • popular
  • policy

I was thinking about this the other day, and idly wondering what it would look like if I mapped some of the ideas I have an interest in onto a field of political possibility. In the decade I’ve been blogging, what’s become more acceptable, popular, or even policy? And what’s still unthinkable?

I’m looking at the broad perception of these ideas rather than UK policy, and it’s thoroughly unscientific, but here are a few of them.

Basic income is one of the ideas that has surged out of the dark hinterlands of the unthinkable in the last ten years. Every other book I read seems to consider it, and there are serious trials in several parts of the world. No national policies just yet, but if we consider the use of cash transfers, one could argue that a form of it is already in use.

When I first started writing about climate change, the idea of 100% renewable energy was considered impossible without enormous reductions in energy use – and that made it unthinkable. The rapid evolution of technology and the shifting economics of energy has changed that, and there are now countries with stated ambitions to run on 100% renewable energy. The circular economy has also moved towards the centre, from a fringe idea to a mainstream one.

Other things are moving in the opposite direction. I’ve put electoral reform on here with an eye on the British context specifically, and that’s been pushed back into the shadows by the country’s two big parties. Democracy more generally is under attack, in many places increasingly polarised, and not valued the way it was a generation ago. The brief moment that Obama created around nuclear disarmament disappeared almost immediately. Immigration isn’t something I write about on the blog, but I added it because I mentioned it yesterday and it’s a good example of an idea falling out of favour. The free movement of people was an established principle in Europe, and it has become politically toxic.

Some things haven’t moved much. Land value taxation is still waiting for its moment. Postgrowth economics is probably much further into the centre with the general public, but among politicians it’s unthinkable heresy.

Reflecting on these movements, it’s encouraging to think about how things can and and do change. It also highlights the importance of patience, and of taking opportunities when they roll around.


  1. Population growth and its limitation / reversal is at last moving from untouchable towards radical, I think and hope.

    1. It has never been “untouchable”, Dave. Or even radical. The problem with it (the “reversal” part) is that it is impossible in less than centuries. Once it is recognized that “dealing with overpopulation” is impossible in less than centuries, it drops from the discussion of “actionable things within my lifetime” (or even “my kid’s lifetimes”).

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