A little while ago we had some discussion here about the Sensible Sentencing Trust and their status as a charity. That’s not what this post is about.
Rather, I’m going to write a little bit about the functional role groups like the SST play in the political process and how they are successful.
The SST, while not a think tank because they produce little if any ‘research’ and don’t pretend to be interested in actual debate, plays a functional role that is very similar to that of your typical think tank, as that role is explained by Joe Overton.
Joe Overton was a researcher and Vice President at the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy, an influential though not widely known think tank in the USA. He came up with one of those insights that is simple, easily understood, and that when you hear about for the first time makes you think, “Of course”. Which, in my view, marks him as a genius.
The insight became known as ‘The Overton Window of political possibilities’, or Overton’s window . The basic idea is that politicians will not, in general, implement policy that will result in them losing their jobs. The policies that will result in them losing their jobs are, simply enough, policies that the public will not accept.
For any given area of policy, Overton tells us, there are a range of policy items or positions that can be conceptualised as being on a yardstick.
The yardstick can be labeled like this, going from both ends to the ‘centre’:
Unthinkable – Radical – Acceptable – Sensible – Popular – Policy
Given that politicians want to keep their jobs, the theory goes, they will only advocate for or enact policy platforms that are in the window of acceptability. If something is beyond acceptable they simply won’t do it. I’m sure we can all think of things that our favorite parties have done, or more often failed to do, that makes us tear our hair out and cry ‘why you bastards, you fracking weak bastards, why?’.
Overton’s window explains why.
What groups like the SST (and the Business Roundtable, Maxim, CIS, et al) do, is shift the window. By continually advocating for positions in the radical and unacceptable zones, they simultaneously open the window at their end, and close it off at the other.
As an example, think about how the idea of parole has moved from being policy (meaning a politician simply must advocate for it or risk losing status) to being somewhere in the sensible – acceptable zone, (where the idea requires defending, and opposition to it is at least acceptable). The SST has done that, shifted Overton’s window, in a way that politicians by themselves couldn’t/wouldn’t.
This is what Overton was talking about, and is what he explicitly saw the role of think tanks to be. That is why think tanks are reliably extreme, challenging and predictable in their views. They are not doing ‘research’ in the normal sense of the word, but using ‘research’ as propaganda to move the population’s view of acceptable opinion, so that the window for politician’s actions becomes more favourable to their agenda.
I think it works better in the States than it does here, particularly since the advent of MMP, (noticed how the BRT has faded away?) Under MMP we have parties that can advocate for views only acceptable to a quite small minority. But I also think that the window is a useful thing to think about in the current NZ situation with regard to ACT’s relationship with the SST.
Another interesting area is the different strategies Labour and National have taken with regard to Coalition and governing arrangements.
Labour, much to the left’s disgust, went to the centre parties and left the radical Green Party, (radical that is in terms of the window), out in the cold.
National has taken radicals to her breast.
We’ll see how that plays out I guess.