Welcome to SPN’s interview series where we connect with leaders from state think tanks to share their stories and learn how their insights might inspire our work.
In this interview, we chat with Mississippi Center for Public Policy president and CEO, Jon Pritchett. Jon recently joined the Center from the John Locke Foundation where he was Senior Vice President for several years after coming from the private sector.
Check out his insights on the next big opportunities for the freedom movement and his advice for being both happy and successful.
SPN: How did you first get involved in the freedom movement?
Jon: I’ve always been “involved” in my own way as an entrepreneur, executive, investment banker, and writer, but didn’t join the “movement” until two years ago when I became Senior Vice President at the John Locke Foundation in my home state of North Carolina.
SPN: Was there a moment or a role model that inspired you to choose work that’s dedicated to the cause of freedom and human flourishing?
Jon: There was no catharsis. It was more like a slow burn over decades of working in the private sector and observing the nation tilting slowly leftward. Like many people of my era, I took inspiration from Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman.
SPN: Based on your observations, what do you think is the next big opportunity for the freedom movement?
Jon: What made Friedman and Buckley so effective was the way in which they used mass media to inform millions of Americans about our ideas. Over the past decades, we’ve seen a massive disruption in the channels of media and in the way ideas are conveyed. In many ways, this has made life more complicated for the content provider, but it has also created untold creativity and wealth for independent voices who would never have been able to build large audiences through traditional channels alone. In the end, however, content is king. Our ideas are the ones that resonate. Our ideas are the ones people choose when the options are evident. Our opportunity is to find, create, and develop unique and compelling ways to share that evidence. And we need to do this with a real sense of urgency.
SPN: What do you enjoy most about being a part of a network working to promote freedom?
Jon: For the first time in my work career, I feel like what I spend my time doing is going to reap benefits for a massive number of people. It’s an over-used phrase, but this work feels like a calling.
SPN: How did you wind up at your current organization?
Jon: The Board of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy decided to expand their search for the next leader beyond Mississippi and the Gulf Coast Region. The executive search firm they retained reached out to me, in part due to my previous experience building small organizations into larger ones, and in part because of the reputation of the John Locke Foundation. I was very happy working at the Foundation, which is a highly effective and well-regarded think tank. I had no plans to leave. But when the opportunity was presented, I kept hearing the voice of Dr. De Hicks, a respected executive coach within the network, saying, “When you have a choice between comfort and adventure, choose adventure.”
SPN: Where do you think the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is making the biggest difference in people’s lives?
Jon: In Mississippi, there are lots of people who call themselves “conservative.” Many of them are elected officials and what they agree to support or oppose is often anything but conservative. These actions, sometimes well-intentioned, don’t advance the cause of liberty and freedom. They don’t promote competition and consumer choice. They don’t limit government and promote private-sector solutions. They don’t support personal responsibility, and they don’t protect our natural rights.
Too often, they agree to protect monopolies, reward insiders, and support boondoggles in the name of economic development. Our job is to use an evidence-based approach to advance freedom. So whether it’s a government official, elected representative, business leader, donor, or member of media, we have to be the ones using reason, evidence, and thoughtful argument to properly define what it is to be a “conservative.”
SPN: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had known before taking this job?
Jon: No. You can do all of the analysis you want in evaluating a job, but in my experience the most important thing is how you feel in your gut about it. If the opportunity is a match for your skills and the people are the right kind of folks, you can figure the rest of it out. That’s what leadership is about.
SPN: What current issue or policy is nearest and dearest to your heart?
Jon: I’m fearful of the dangerous trend we see all around us from corporatism, especially from the large, publicly traded companies. We thought we killed the idea of a corporation CEO doing “social responsibility” work and virtue-signaling about 50 years ago, but it’s back with a vengeance. We have a constitutional republic with a representative form of government and a balance of powers. When public companies start trying to dictate state laws through economic bullying, we usurp federalism and the citizens’ will. It’s bad for our republic, and it’s often bad for shareholders, too.
SPN: What resources and sources of information do you find the most helpful for your work?
Jon: I’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal since 1984. If you want to work in the free-market, you need to understand how it functions and how essential economic liberty is to our freedom. I keep a copy of Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Free to Choose” nearby for that very reason. I continue to read National Review because I think they still have some of the best writers on the right-of-center in our universe. Before joining the movement, I read everything I could find by Al Ries and Jack Trout. These lessons on brand positioning are universal—no matter what the product, service, or idea.
SPN: What SPN staff member, training, or resource has had the greatest impact on your work?
Jon: I’ve found Kevin Gentry’s advice and sharing of development principles to be very helpful. I always come away inspired by the humor, data, wisdom, and anachronism that is Dr. De Hicks, who coaches many network executives and directors on leadership.
SPN: If you had one piece of advice for others considering a career like yours, what would it be?
Jon: Go work in the private sector for a while. Work in small and large companies. Work for the government, but not for long. It will give you a real-life, personal experience, which is the best way to learn. Find the intersection of your personal interests and personal skills. That’s where you’ll add value to an organization. That’s where you’ll find motivation. That’s also where you’ll get paid. Compensation is not about position, title, or seniority; it’s about creating value.
SPN: When you’re not improving the world at work, where are you likely to be found?
Jon: In the mountains of North Carolina. On the coast of South Carolina. Visiting one of our adult children or watching our youngest play one of her sports. Or, if it’s during one of the four majors in golf, you’ll find me watching what I consider to be one of the best “reality television” shows ever produced—live coverage of a final round at a major.
SPN: Tell us about your favorite hobbies and pastimes.
Jon: I love to be outside. I enjoy tennis, golf, bird hunting, and gardening. And sometimes I write.
SPN: Who are a few of your favorite authors, blogs, etc.?
Jon: I enjoy reading National Review and NRO, including David French, Charles Cook, Andrew McCarthy, and Victor Davis Hanson. I’m coming around to the enigma that is Jonah Goldberg and looking forward to reading his new book. And Jordan Peterson is fascinating. In terms of a fiction read, I admit to enjoying Lee Child’s series about Jack Reacher, but I hate the idea of Tom Cruise playing him in the movie version—he lacks the gravitas and the height to pull it off.