Friday, August 19, 2011

Making the unthinkable, more popular: A libertarian goal

"Should libertarians become involved in politics?" Not a tough question for me, having run in two elections, and about to start yet another campaign. But that was the question posed in a debate at this year's Liberty Summer Seminar in Orono Ontario.
The debaters were Leon Drolet a former Michigan State legislator, arguing for the affirmative, and Anton Howes (negative) on the board of European Students for Liberty in the UK.
Despite my bias, I found it a fascinating debate and discussion, and a learning experience. Both debaters were excellent, though I, and a majority of the audience thought that Mr. Drolet carried the day. Of course I didn't need convincing, but I was exposed to a new (for me) concept in Mr. Drolet's rebuttal.
Mr. Drolet was careful to acknowledge that his opponent's position was as important as his own, namely the apolitical philosophical advocates (like the Institute for Liberal Studies and other think tanks and thinkers) were as important as the political ones. Both are required to eventually sway public opinion and make policy change in government.

In the rebuttal Mr. Drolet referred to the Overton Window, a model of policy change that describes the range of acceptable options that politicians can support and still win re-election.
In any politically related discussion there are always a range of alternatives as is indicated in the diagram above. New ideas may be so "out there on the fringe" that they are considered by most people as being unthinkable. Others are either already policy, or possible policy. Mr. Drolet suggested that it is up to the philosopher thinker or the think tank to present an idea. It is the politician's job is to sell it, so that it eventually becomes more acceptable and mainstream. In any political enterprise such as an election campaign, the “window” (named the Overton Window) includes the range of policies considered to be politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion. Any politician may recommend anything within the Overton Window without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public office. Overton's idea was arranged in a spectrum on a vertical axis of “more free” and “less free” with regard to government intervention. The window moves or expands as ideas become more or less politically acceptable.
So within the context of the American campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination, Ron Paul's ideas, by and large, are considered unthinkable or too radical to make him a viable candidate. That is how the mainstream media are portraying him. But events may change the public perception of Ron Paul, and some or all of his ideas may become more acceptable or sensible to the general public. That's why he is running.
That is true about Canadian libertarians as well. The election campaign in Ontario, now underway, will give us an opportunity to advocate unthinkable or radical ideas to the electorate. The goal is to move the Overton Window toward acceptability and eventually get someone elected. Can this happen? Of course it can.
Unthinkable ideas 50 years ago, are now completely accepted. There is a black President in the US. Marriage between homosexuals is legal in Canada and many American jurisdictions. Marijuana today, seems "less dangerous" and is likely to be decriminalized somewhere in North America in the not-too-distant future. Today there is no law in Canada dealing with abortion. All of those ideas were once unthinkable, but with patience, and persistence, they are within the realm of policy and practice. There is hope.

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