Defining conservatism in Mississippi

Conservatism is a word I’ve heard a lot since moving here to take the position as CEO of Mississippi’s conservative think tank, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. It seems almost everyone considers himself a conservative. I’m discovering the word has lost some of its meaning, though. It has become interchangeable with the GOP or with one’s views on the Second Amendment or on being pro-life. But those definitions of conservative are not wholly accurate. More importantly, they’re not enough. A conservative is also willing to stand up to encroaching power of all forms of government, to the growing corporatism that seeks to govern us from the boardroom, and to the menace to our society that is a progressive culture.

To make Mississippi a leader in economic growth, entrepreneurship, job creation, and prosperity, we have to make progress on the issue of our long-standing dependence on government. We have to change our public policy. We need to value work, remove barriers to risk-taking, free parents to choose the education path that works for their own children, and leverage the power of the private enterprises of faith, family, non-profits, and private organizations. The faith-based and philanthropic generosity of Mississippians is amazing. It can create so much good, but we have to prevent government from competing with this philanthropy. The best solutions in civil society come from local, efficient, effective, temporary actions where a personal relationship ensures mutual accountability. This is how we used to solve the problems in our civil society.

There are far too many Mississippians who seek to petition government to do this work. Worse, too many individuals and companies are looking to the government for a contract, a job, a partner, or protection from competition. When we allow government to become the Holy Grail in this way, we weaken the free market. We create a disincentive to the formation and deployment of capital. We thwart the opportunity for all Mississippians to prosper. What’s more, such reliance on government ensures only those with power have significant influence on Mississippi, including determining who represents us in the legislative and executive branches of our government.

What makes a “conservative” is not a party or allegiance to a particular leader or political campaign, but the power of ideas. As conservatives, our ideas are based on bedrock values and fundamental truths. Freedom is a policy that works. A limited and restrained government is the essence of our system. And the principle of ordered liberty holds it all together. Our goal at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy is to play a leadership role in building a Mississippi where individual liberty, opportunity, and responsibility reign because government is limited. We believe this is the only way nations, states, and cities have ever enjoyed durable prosperity.

If we remain committed to these ideas and work hard to convince others of their value, we can all experience a Magnolia renaissance. And we can say conservatism made it possible. Real conservatism. The kind of which Bill Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Milton Friedman spoke. The kind where we are free to pursue our individual liberty and speak our minds. The kind where we encourage people to take action and take risks in pursuit of their happiness. The kind where we take personal responsibility for our futures and stop looking for government to solve all of our problems.

There is an important role for government but it must be limited. Government functions best when it is closest to the people and when it is open and transparent. And the states are the best avenue for getting things done. Although our national government continues to grow into an unwieldy and bureaucratic swamp, our country is still federalist. We are a collection of semi-sovereign states. Federalism is a conservative idea. As Reagan stated in his first inaugural address, “The federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.” Thanks to our founding fathers, the real political and policy power is supposed to belong to the states.

Though I’ve lived in Mississippi for only a few months now, I’ve come to learn that y’all are not very fond of people telling you what to do, especially not people in Washington, D.C. I admire that. That’s a conservative thing, too. That independence goes to the heart of the conservative movement. It was present at our founding. It was what compelled Bill Buckley to start National Review. It was what gave us Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. And if we harness it, conservatism will lead us to a prosperous Mississippi—a Mississippi where individual liberty, opportunity, and responsibility reign because government is limited.

This column appeared in the Clinton Courier on July 3, 2018. 

Jon Pritchett

Jon Pritchett is the President and CEO of Mississippi Center for Public Policy.