On the Overton Window

Jul 24 JDN 2459786

As you are no doubt aware, a lot of people on the Internet like to loudly proclaim support for really crazy, extreme ideas. Some of these people actually believe in those ideas, and if you challenge them, will do their best to defend them. Those people are wrong at the level of substantive policy, but there’s nothing wrong with their general approach: If you really think that anarchism or communism is a good thing, it only makes sense that you’d try to convince other people. You might have a hard time of it (in part because you are clearly wrong), but it makes sense that you’d try.

But there is another class of people who argue for crazy, extreme ideas. When pressed, they will admit they don’t really believe in abolishing the police or collectivizing all wealth, but they believe in something else that’s sort of vaguely in that direction, and they think that advocating for the extreme idea will make people more likely to accept what they actually want.

They often refer to this as “shifting the Overton Window”. As Matt Yglesias explained quite well a year ago, this is not actually what Overton was talking about.

But, in principle, it could still be a thing that works. There is a cognitive bias known as anchoring which is often used in marketing: If I only offered a $5 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine, you might think the $20 bottle is too expensive. But if I also include a $50 bottle, that makes you adjust your perceptions of what constitutes a “reasonable” price for wine, and may make you more likely to buy the $20 bottle after all.

It could be, therefore, that an extreme policy demand makes people more willing to accept moderate views, as a sort of compromise. Maybe demanding the abolition of police is a way of making other kinds of police reform seem more reasonable. Maybe showing pictures of Marx and chanting “eat the rich” could make people more willing to accept higher capital gains taxes. Maybe declaring that we are on the verge of apocalyptic climate disaster will make people more willing to accept tighter regulations on carbon emissions and subsidies for solar energy.

Then again—does it actually seem to do that? I see very little evidence that it does. All those demands for police abolition haven’t changed the fact that defunding the police is unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but it has been for awhile now (and never was with, well, the rich). And decades of constantly shouting about imminent climate catastrophe is really starting to look like crying wolf.

To see why this strategy seems to be failing, I think it’s helpful to consider how it feels from the other side. Take a look at some issues where someone else is trying to get you to accept a particular view, and consider whether someone advocating a more extreme view would make you more likely to compromise.

Your particular opinions may vary, but here are some examples that would apply to me, and, I suspect, many of you.

If someone says they want tighter border security, I’m skeptical—it’s pretty tight already. But in and of itself, this would not be such a crazy idea. Certainly I agree that it is possible to have too little border security, and so maybe that turns out to be the state we’re in.

But then, suppose that same person, or someone closely allied to them, starts demanding the immediate deportation of everyone who was not born in the United States, even those who immigrated legally and are naturalized or here on green cards. This is a crazy, extreme idea that’s further in the same direction, so on this anchoring theory, it should make me more willing to accept the idea of tighter border security. And yet, I can say with some confidence that it has no such effect.

Indeed, if anything I think it would make me less likely to accept tighter border security, in proportion to how closely aligned those two arguments are. If they are coming from the same person, or the same political party, it would cause me to suspect that the crazy, extreme policy is the true objective, and the milder, compromise policy is just a means toward that end. It also suggests certain beliefs and attitudes about immigration in general—xenophobia, racism, ultranationalism—that I oppose even more strongly. If you’re talking about deporting all immigrants, you make me suspect that your reasons for wanting tighter border security are not good ones.

Let’s try another example. Suppose someone wants to cut taxes on upper income brackets. In our current state, I think that would be a bad idea. But there was a time not so long ago when I would have agreed with it: Even I have to admit that a top bracket of 94% (as we had in 1943) sounds a little ridiculous, and is surely on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. So the basic idea of cutting top tax rates is not inherently crazy or ridiculous.

Now, suppose that same idea came from the same person, or the same party, or the same political movement, as one that was arguing for the total abolition of all taxation. This is a crazy, extreme idea; it would amount to either total anarcho-capitalism with no government at all, or some sort of bizarre system where the government is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. I think it’s pretty obvious that such a system would be terrible, if not outright impossible; and anyone whose understanding of political economy is sufficiently poor that they would fail to see this is someone whose overall judgment on questions of policy I must consider dubious. Once again, the presence of the extreme view does nothing to make me want to consider the moderate view, and may even make me less willing to do so.

Perhaps I am an unusually rational person, not so greatly affected by anchoring biases? Perhaps. But whereas I do feel briefly tempted by to buy the $20 wine bottle by the effect of the $50 wine bottle, and must correct myself with knowledge I have about anchoring bias, the presentation of an extreme political view never even makes me feel any temptation to accept some kind of compromise with it. Learning that someone supports something crazy or ridiculous—or is willing to say they do, even if deep down they don’t—makes me automatically lower my assessment of their overall credibility. If anything, I think I am tempted to overreact in that direction, and have to remind myself of the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and someone can have both bad ideas and good ones.

Moreover, the empirical data, while sketchy, doesn’t seem to support this either; where the Overton Window (in the originally intended sense) has shifted, as on LGBT rights, it was because people convincingly argued that the “extreme” position was in fact an entirely reasonable and correct view. There was a time not so long ago that same-sex marriage was deemed unthinkable, and the “moderate” view was merely decriminalizing sodomy; but we demanded, and got, same-sex marriage, not as a strategy to compromise on decriminalizing sodomy, but because we actually wanted same-sex marriage and had good arguments for it. I highly doubt we would have been any more successful if we had demanded something ridiculous and extreme, like banning opposite-sex marriage.

The resulting conclusion seems obvious and banal: Only argue for things you actually believe in.

Yet, somehow, that seems to be a controversial view these days.

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