The Overton Window

Before I wore it out (literally) I used to own a t-shirt that said: It’s not about right versus left, conservative versus liberal. It’s about liberty versus tyranny. What many fail to realize is that what is considered left or right is relevant to your current position. Allow me to explain what I mean by that.

Let’s say you are standing side by side with a long line of other people, and I’m about a dozen people down the line from you; which side doesn’t really matter. Now if someone were to ask you who was on your left, or right, your answer would be different than mine due to our different positions in the line.

So, when people use the terms left and right, or even liberal and conservative, it is a matter of perspective based upon something known as the Overton Window. The Overton Window does not use the terms liberal or conservative; what it describes is the window of what is considered acceptable beliefs/behavior on a sliding scale between complete freedom and complete governmental control of our lives.

Imagine you had a 12-inch ruler, like this:

Now if you were to place Absolute Freedom at one end of the ruler, and Absolute Government at the other, that would be your sliding scale. The Overton Window would be like what you would see if you took a piece of paper and cut a 1 inch square out of it and placed it over the ruler; like this:

What you see inside that cut out square is what is considered acceptable by the majority of the people. However, that window can be shifted; either to the left or the right; towards more freedom, or more government. So, when I hear people use the terms left and right in regards to their political positions, I have to ask myself; where on that sliding scale are they in comparison to those they oppose?

There is a graphic I found that may help in understanding what I just described; although on either extreme it simply refers to the amount of freedom enjoyed by the people who are governed:

To understand the political positions of the two primary political parties in America today, we must know the definition of the term they use to describe themselves; either conservatives or liberals. The word conservative is defined as one who is opposed to change; one who adheres to traditional values. A liberal is one who is open to change, or reform; one who is not bound by traditional values.
On the surface, that sounds all well and good; especially if you consider yourself to be a conservative. But, if you enter the Overton Window into the formula, what is considered a conservative position today might have been considered a liberal position fifty…twenty…even ten years ago; it’s relevant to our current position on that sliding scale that determines how much freedom we enjoy.

Unfortunately, we’ve been shifting on that scale from total freedom to total government ever since the Constitution was put into effect back in 1789. You may call yourself a conservative by today’s standards, but your parents and grandparents would probably have thought your beliefs were more liberal than they were conservative. Like I said, it’s all relevant to where we are on that sliding scale.

That is why I harp incessantly upon the importance of knowing the purpose government should serve, while not basing your beliefs upon the political party platforms of whatever parties exist in today’s political climate. To do that, all one has to do is refer to the Declaration of Independence, where it states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. (My emphasis)

That right there is the purpose government should serve. However, there is something else people must take into consideration when discussing the function of government; that being what kind of government are we talking about. Even if you live in a small town, that town has some form of government; be it a mayor, or a mayor and a city council. Then there are the county governments, the State governments, and finally, the central, or federal/national government; and there is a huge difference between the two when talking about a central government.

After the Revolution ended, when they transitioned from 13 British Colonies to 13 States, each State was considered sovereign and independent; much like each country in Europe, Africa, or South America is a sovereign and independent country. Our country’s first attempt at a centralized government, under the Articles of Confederation, explain the relationship between the states and the central government quite clearly in Articles II and III, where they state:

Article II.
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Article III.
The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.

Under that system, each State was treated as if it were an individual; each given a single vote. Not only that, the Congress could not draft a piece of legislation, then hand it off to an Executive to decide whether to sign or veto it; simply because there was no Executive! For any measure to become binding, it first had to be agreed to in the Congress, then by the unanimous vote of every single State Legislature; leaving the power where it should be; localized and in the hands of those who directly represented the people.

That system stood in the way of those who thought that power should be centralized; especially when it came to matters of taxation; a single state could defeat any taxing measure by simply voting against it in the State Legislature; which is why that system had to go; to be replaced by one which gave the central government more power, without depending upon the approval of the States for any measure.

Ah, but Neal, that’s where you’re wrong; the Senate did represent the States before the ratification of the 17th Amendment. First of all, I don’t believe the 17th Amendment was lawfully ratified; just like I don’t believe the 14th and 16th were lawfully ratified; but that’s a topic for another day.

Yes, there were two bodies in Congress; each of whom represented different political entities. There was the Senate, that represented the States, and there was the House, that represented the people. However, gone was the requirement that a vote be unanimous in support of the measures that would go before Congress.

I honestly don’t know how much thought, or study, people have given the concept of representation in government; but the difference in beliefs held by the delegates of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 were enough to where they almost prevented the Constitution from coming into existence. There were those who wanted representation in both Houses of Congress to be equal, and there were those who wanted representation in both Houses to be based upon population. In the end, a compromise was reached in which representation in the Senate would be equal, and in the House, representation would be based upon population.

That may not seem to be of much importance, until you consider that while this was happening, there were two distinct economies and cultures making up these States united. The economy of the Northern States was predominantly centered around business; commerce and banking. The South, on the other hand, was predominantly an agrarian economy; one in which agriculture was the primary means of providing income for those who lived there.

As America was new on the world stage, those who manufactured goods faced stiff competition in the marketplace from those countries who had well established industries. This new government, whose founding charter, (the Constitution), which was written by those involved in commerce and banking, sought to create a system which would give them the power to elevate America into an economic power capable of competing with global competitors. However, to do so they would need to impose tariffs upon goods coming into the country so that America’s fledgling industries could compete in the open marketplace.

Those tariffs were felt the most in the South; which imported much of what it did not produce itself. Opposition to those tariffs led to the Nullification Crisis in the 1830’s, and eventually the Civil War in 1860. Yet, I’m not here to talk about tariffs; I’m here to talk about how representation allowed for those tariffs to be imposed in the first place.

A majority vote in the Senate today is 51 votes, and in the House, it is 218. Back then those numbers were even smaller. As America began to grow, those coming into this country sought jobs, and there are more jobs in industrialized areas than there are on farms and plantations; even assuming there was no slave labor force to do most of the work. So, it is natural that the population of the Northern States would increase faster than it would in the South. This increase gave the industrialized states an advantage in the House, and as new States were added to the Union, the battle was over whether or not to allow them to enter the union as a free, or a slave State; as the majority would then secure control of Congress.

It’s important that you understand that, although there was opposition to the institution of slavery in the North, the battle was for preventing the spread of slavery into newly admitted States; which would take away the North’s ability to control Congress. Abraham Lincoln almost said as much in his Inaugural Address: I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

If you’ll note, he only said that he felt he had no lawful authority to interfere with slavery, ‘where it exists’, not in regards to whether or not it should be allowed to spread throughout the rest of the Union. Lincoln’s concern, his primary reason for sending troops into the South is best explained by something he said in a letter to newspaper editor Horace Greeley: My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.

I truly think that Lincoln felt that the Southern States would give up when they saw the might of the Union Army; but after the first major battle at Manassas, Lincoln realized that was not to be. Yet he could not back down now; not if he hoped to save face and continue to be supported by the newly created Republican Party.

So, Lincoln waged war against the South, who only sought to exercise their right, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence: That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Slavery may have been an issue that led to secession, but it was not the cause of the war itself; that was fought because Lincoln could not afford to let the South separate and form their own country; as they were paying most of the tariffs/taxes that funded the programs that benefitted those for whom this government was created to serve – banking, commerce and industry.

On December 10, 01860, the Chicago Daily Times spoke openly in an editorial in regards to what must have been on the minds of Lincoln, and every Northern member of Congress: In one single blow our foreign commerce may be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One half of our shipping would lie idle at our wharves. We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits. Our manufactories would be in utter ruin. Let the South adopt the free trade system, or that of a tariff for revenue, and these results would likely follow.”

The North needed the South, while the South did not need the North. The South was the government’s cash cow; it’s source of revenue to fund its operations – and it could not allow it to leave.

So, how did a discussion of the Overton Window devolve into a discussion of the Civil War? The answer is, it didn’t; it merely shows you how that window had slid along that scale from more freedom for the governed, to less freedom. If government is, as the Declaration of Independence says it is, instituted to secure the rights and liberty of the governed, then a government that seeks to use its power to benefit one class of people, at the cost of their tax dollars and their freedom, then the Overton Window has shifted away from freedom, towards more government. That also means that, what it means to be a conservative today is not the same as what it meant prior to the Civil War.

In 1849 a fellow by the name of Henry David Thoreau, wrote a book entitled Civil Disobedience. He begins his book by stating: I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Using the Overton Window, words like that today would fall outside what is considered politically acceptable speech, or beliefs; it would be considered, not only radical, it would be considered unthinkable. If you don’t believe me, just tell anyone you know that you think that we’d be better off without any kind of government, and see how people respond.

Yet, as terrible as the Constitution is, that is almost how things were at the beginning; when our government first went into operation in 1789 – it exercised very little power over the lives and liberty of the people. In fact, in his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson described ‘good’ government as follows: Still one thing more, fellow-citizens — a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

While the constitution was still merely a proposal for a new system of government, James Madison, one of its authors, wrote the following, detailing the powers that would be exercised by the new government, and those exercised by the states: The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. (My emphasis)

Does that last sentence sound anything like our federal government today? Please, do not answer that it does; not when our current Buffoon in Chief has said that we must take a vaccine if we want to keep our jobs; assuming we work in places with 100 or more employees.

So, either Madison flat out lied about what the Constitution would do, or that document isn’t as good as they said it was in preventing government from overreaching its authority. In either case, Lysander Spooner was 100% correct in stating: But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.

But Neal, times have changed; we live in a far different world than they did back in 1789. Yes, times have changed; I’ll admit that, but I’d like for you to read two quotes when you consider how much we should allow government to encroach upon the freedoms it was ‘supposedly’ established to secure. The first quote comes from George Washington’s Farewell Address to the People: If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.

Have there been amendments to the Constitution, granting government increased powers, or have these new powers come through usurpation, (look the word up, you might learn something)? If they have come through usurpation, then what is considered acceptable, that Overton Window this whole thing is about, has shifted away from freedom towards less freedom. That means what is considered conservative today, would not have been considered conservative by men like Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and a whole host of others.

The next quote comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to judge Spencer Roane in 1821: Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch, and if the gangrene is to prevail at last, let the day be kept off as long as possible.

While I, myself, do not want or need government, I can see that, if it served the purpose it was supposed to, it is something I could live with. As Thomas Paine wrote: Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Therefore, if we MUST have government, and if you think that government does not have the requisite powers needed to run this country, then do not let them assume those powers by usurpation; let the Constitution be amended by the proper means, so that these new powers have the consent of the governed.

The unfortunate thing is, we have slid so far on that sliding scale, allowed government to assume for itself what powers it will exercise, that it is too late to hope for a restoral of the principles, true conservative principles, to be restored in this country. Overton’s Window is now nearing the point where we have no freedom whatsoever, and anyone who seeks to regain the freedom that is their birthright is seen as a threat to society.

So, where does that leave us? I really don’t know what lies in the future; not when the overwhelming majority think that they can undo 232 years of damage to their freedom at the voting booth. I do know that doing the same thing they have been doing isn’t going to do a damned thing.

If we want our freedom back, we’re going to have to risk something to take it back; government isn’t going to give it back to us without some kind of a fight.

The Declaration of Independence states: Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I suppose the only question worth asking at this point is; How much discomfort are you willing to bear before you realize that it isn’t the left or the right that is the cause of your suffering, it is the system you’ve supported and complied with for all your lives?

If you get a splinter that causes you pain and discomfort, the only way to rid yourself of that pain and discomfort is go get rid of what’s causing it. Well, government is a sliver; hell, it’s a cancer that is eating away at your freedom. So, what are you going to do about it? As the immortal Patrick Henry said in 1775: I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

About Br'er Rabbit

I'm just one person out of millions of others. The only thing different about me is that I don't walk around with my head up my ass.
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