Home > General Comment, shorter work time > The abolition of work and The Overton Window

The abolition of work and The Overton Window

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tom Walker has floated a question that deserve consideration.

The question comes in the form of a quote from a conservative commenter who has asserted there is only so much room in any political system for political change.

We think Tom’s comments deserves to be read in its entirety, and publish it below:

The Overton Window

Joe Overton was a policy researcher for the conservative think-tank, the Mackinac Center. His idea of the “window of political possibility” illustrates the principle that it is not only the realism of a particular policy proposal that counts but also how any proposal fits into a spectrum of acceptable ideas, which is necessarily much narrower than the entire range of possible positions. That is to say, what makes an idea “clear, simple and realistic” has at least as much to do with the receptivity of the audience to that specific idea as it does with the inherent properties of that proposal or its advocates’ adherence to a specific, easily communicated message. Below is a description of the Overton window from the Mackinac Center’s website. I’ll leave it to SWTers to imagine how this applies to our issue:

Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the “window” of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.

So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? /Shift the window/. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the “window,” a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.

Likewise, policies that were once acceptable become politically infeasible as the window shifts away from them. Think tanks can shape public opinion and shift the Overton window by educating legislators and the public about sound policy, by creating a vision for how things /could/ be done, by conducting research and presenting facts, and by involving people in the exchange of ideas.

Freedom from work is not a political demand

We responded to Tom’s quote with the comment that, in our opinion, reducing hours of work is not a political demand, but one that is aimed at government as well as the private sector economy. “Shorter hours of work is not a political demand, precisely because Washington has an interest in longer hours of work to the extent it means more economic turnover, and, therefore, more opportunities for tax revenue.”

Beyond this fact, it has been known since Karl Marx first wrote on the subject, that the present economic system rests on the hours a society works in addition to that necessary to feed and clothe itself, and buy that 42 inch high definition wide screen plasma television. It has also been known, for at least as long, that government revenues rest on these hours as well.

Moreover, it has been generally understood by politicians since at least the First World War that the military power of any nation is proportional to the excess hours of work performed by the rubes in that country. People can build bombs only after they are fed.

To maximize the military power of a country, you must maximize the hours of work of it population – and no country has sought to maximize its military power more than the United States. Hence, no nation has combined long hours of work with high productivity of labor and flexible labor markets better than the US.

So, at least from the standpoint of Washington, the demand for freedom from work is not a political demand; it amounts to a demand against government itself.

Freedom from Work and the Freedom to Starve

But, how does it look from your viewpoint? A letter in response to our comments was provided by Jeffrey Platt:

This is the serious point of our issues, we are proposing adjustments in the way people have been conditioned to believe is the reality, the normality.  The wallet, the purse, the bank account, the amount of available credit, the job  – how that all adds up and subtracts is being threatened by our proposals when people would need to be convinced it is in their own personal and collective interest to support this adjustment.  We know redistributing work hours would benefit people collectively and personally but challenging the status quo is difficult.

Jeff has a good point:  Freedom from work is, as a practical matter, experienced only as unemployment by the vast majority of us. It means hunger and homelessness and financial ruin. Everything about unemployment contradicts the argument that freedom from work benefits the individual.

How does one both confront the ‘superficial appearance’ – that freedom from work is the freedom to starve –  and the underlying reality – that freedom from work is the beginning of true freedom – when that “superficial appearance” is as real as sleeping on a sidewalk grate in winter.

It does not seem likely that people will risk starvation merely to prevent the Messiah from killing more wedding guests in Afghanistan. Nor, will they do it even if we could show that reduced hours of work is the only way to end poverty here and around the world, trade deficits, budget deficits, and global warming – kill 99 percent of the germs that cause bad breath.

Finally, they certainly won’t do it based on some fantasy about the realm of true freedom awaiting them after work is abolished.

Given the only just dawning realization that they bought into the Messiah’s bullshit and are now eating that particular sandwich – while pretending its bologna – should be enough to caution against selling reduced hours of work as the next Paradise on Earth.

The abolition of work and the Overton Window

All of the above go toward explaining why we tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of convincing large numbers of people to support shorter hours of work. And, why so little has been accomplished in this direction over the past seven decades since the Great Depression.

It is still a fact, however, that the abolition of work is the actual trajectory of society.

For this reason alone, we believe it is not acceptable to simply ignore the issue and will continue to show the close connection between all of the problems we discussed above and hours of work.


Because the trajectory on which society is now traveling presupposes that the practical gulf between working and not working will be narrowed.

In case that statement seems too obscure, let us be very clear on this: Eventually, the economy will approach a point where you will be threatened with starvation, homelessness and economic ruin whether you are working or unemployed.

Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for three or four decades now. To add to this problem, China and India – with their massive pool of cheap labor – have begun to integrate themselves into the American dollar empire. American companies have spent most of the past decade shifting their operations offshore to take advantage of these pools of cheap labor and – they anticipate – the consumer markets which will emerge as those poor farmers are drawn into production. Closely connected with this, if Washington is to maintain its dominance of the global market, it must come up with revenues at the expense of your living standard.

None of this bodes well for you: Your wages will be under pressure from low waged competitors, and government will be squeezing you for more revenue.

The applicability of the Overton Window in this case is obvious: At some point along this trajectory, your economic situation will decline to such a point that merely to assure your continued survival you will be forced to abolish work, and the Washington dollar empire.

Whatever argument we can make to advance that day – to avoid the worst of this disaster – we will try to do.

  1. The Glenn Beck Review
    June 17, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I have a review of Overton’s Window, the political theory, on my blog that might interest you.

    • charley2u
      June 20, 2010 at 11:46 am

      Thanks. I will read it.

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