Alcohol taxes and the Overton window

We boozehounds on Twitter were abuzz today about a proposed California ballot initiative that would drastically increase taxes on all forms of potable alcohol:

A new initiative that would increase the tax on alcohol was cleared for signature gathering today by the Secretary of State’s Office. And it’s not a modest tax increase, it’s huge. Tax on a six-pack of beer would increase from 6-cents to $6.08. And say goodbye to two-buck chuck–a tax on a 750 ml bottle of wine would go from 4-cents to $5.11. And the tax on a 750 ml bottle of distilled spirits would increase from from 65-cents to $17.57.

I find it hard to believe that this would pass in a state that has so much riding on its alcohol industry and I think that’s sort of the point. Consider the idea of the Overton window:

The Overton Window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator—Joe Overton—former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. It describes a “window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. [...]

Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

Now it’s possible that the sponsors of this initiative, Josephine and Kent Whitney, truly believe this is a reasonable tax increase. But I doubt that winning the vote is the only goal of this initiative. The aim is to get lots of news coverage for their far-out idea and thereby make smaller tax increases seem reasonable by comparison. So if you don’t want them to succeed, don’t take them too seriously.

Additional note: The Overton window is often described in a very cynical, manipulative context. In contrast, the late Joe Overton’s peers at the libertarian Mackinac Center use it to explain how think tanks can change public policy for the better. They see shifting the window as the noble aim of libertarians working in a world often hostile to free markets and individual liberty. As Nathan Russel wrote for the Center:

A long-term focus on shifting the Overton window allows a think tank to follow its ideals and perform a genuinely positive public service, instead of being constrained to merely advocating those policies that are currently possible. When the window of political possibilities is moved along the political spectrum, the impossible becomes desirable and the simply desirable becomes imperative. This is the true influence of a think tank — shaping the political climate of future legislative and legal debates by researching, educating, involving and inspiring.

[Hat tip to Rumdood, who tweets, "Look, I'm OK with a modest increase in taxes on booze, but from $.65 to $17.57 for a 750mL bottle of rum is insane." Manipulation of the Overton window in action? See also Jeff Woodhead and Chad Wilcox on the Overton window and health care reform.]

Comments

  1. Jake B. says:

    I am curious to see if Oregon goes after a more modest beer tax this year after what was proposed last year. We’ll see in a couple of months

  2. Jan says:

    Are we tired of being manipulated by the think tanks yet?

  3. Pam says:

    California can’t slide into the ocean fast enough for me.

  4. Tony Palazzolo says:

    This goes for smoking bans as well. They will propose a ban in all indoor buildings. When they exclude bars we find that acceptable. However, it is still a ban anyway you look at it.

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