Advancing Freedom in North Carolina
Created in 1990, the John Locke Foundation (JLF) has become one of the most respected and effective state-level think tanks in the country. In addition to contributions from freelance writers and bloggers, JLF employs more than 20 full-time staff, including well-respected academics and journalists.
The Foundation has unearthed corruption in the highest corridors of power, made policy recommendations to streamline government services and save taxpayer dollars, and hosted events across the state featuring well-respected thinkers. New Republican majorities in the North Carolina legislature have adopted many policy recommendations made by JLF thinkers.
It’s a mission that the Foundation’s namesake, John Locke, would have appreciated. A 17th Century English political philosopher, Locke significantly influenced the beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers and contributed to the intellectual foundations of classical liberalism, an approach that emphasizes individual liberty, personal responsibility, free markets, and religious freedom.
Rise to prominence
When JLF opened its doors in 1990, now Pope Foundation President John Hood was one of its first three employees. As a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hood founded The Carolina Critic, a publication that appealed to conservative and libertarian students. His defense of the American tradition of free markets drew the attention of John William Pope, a businessman, philanthropist, and the source of JLF’s start-up funds.
Along with then-JLF president Marc Rotterman, Hood hit the ground running. JLF published its first research on regulation in 1990 and on transportation in 1991. Immediately, lawmakers and pundits alike took notice.
In 1994, shortly after Republicans made sweeping electoral gains at the federal and state level, Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt stood before a JLF audience and embraced tax cuts. It was a testament to the good work — and good will — the Foundation already had generated.
In 1997, JLF’s journalistic enterprise, Carolina Journal, landed on the political scene when Executive Editor Don Carrington exposed a $21 million legislative slush fund. It was the first chapter in an enterprise that would eventually become one of the top outlets for investigative journalism in the state.
With the dawn of the new millennium, it was clear that JLF was a player — and would be around for a long, long time.
Research and outreach
A large part of JLF’s success is due to the thought-provoking policy recommendations produced by its research department. Over the years, Foundation thinkers have encouraged North Carolina lawmakers to adopt a fairer flat tax, pass a constitutional amendment protecting the rights of property owners in eminent domain cases, and pass tax credits for special-needs students.
In addition to monitoring state government, JLF delves into local economics as well. The Foundation’s By the Numbers report tracks the fiscal health of local governments in North Carolina by comparing tax burdens and spending.
“As I see it, the research division is the foundation of our organization,” said Roy Cordato, a Ph.D. economist, Vice President for Research, and Resident Scholar at JLF. “What we do feeds into what is written in Carolina Journal. It also forms the basis for much of the message disseminated by our outreach division. We’re concerned with making their jobs easier by more effectively communicating our own message.”
“I got to go to the General Assembly in the summer to see how the legislature works,” Milton said. “There is no democracy in China, so I didn’t really know how a democracy functioned before then.”
As part of its outreach efforts, JLF hosts events around the state, conducts a weekly Shaftesbury Society luncheon in Raleigh, and regularly comments on current events of state importance.
The Foundation also maintains one of the top political blogs in the state — the Locker Room.
The Foundation’s primary communications outlet is its monthly publication Carolina Journal. The newspaper has a statewide readership of 130,000 through Web, postal mail, boxes, and partnerships with local newspapers. Carolina Journal specializes in covering state and local government, higher education, the arts, and culture.
The newspaper fills a growing gap caused by cutbacks in traditional journalism. “We want to keep our circulation growing and, as the mainstream publications cut back and cut back, to be seen as a legitimate and trusted media alternative, not only for conservatives, but for the public in general,” said Jon Ham, a seasoned journalist, Publisher of Carolina Journal, and Vice President for Communications at JLF.
Carolina Journal has distinguished itself for keeping close tabs on how state and local government spend taxpayer dollars. Beginning in 2005, North Carolina officials began investing millions in public funds into a city-owned entertainment venue in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., known as the Randy Parton Theatre. Carolina Journal exposed the waste and was vindicated when the theatre eventually went belly up.
Reporters also keep close tabs on events in state politics and in the N.C. General Assembly. The newspaper was the only statewide media outlet to cover a number of consequential primary races in the 2010 and 2012 elections, giving voters much-needed information before going to the polls, and boasts one of the largest capital news bureaus in the state to cover legislative affairs.
Morality of capitalism
From its founding nearly 25 years ago, JLF has had the support of the John William Pope Foundation because of the think tank’s commitment to economic freedom.
During his lifetime, John William Pope, who built Variety Wholesalers Inc. into a multi-state retail chain serving over 300 communities across the southeast, acknowledged that it would be more difficult to replicate his success today due to burdensome government regulations.
“If John Pope were starting from scratch today to build his retail business, I’m convinced he would still succeed — but it would take longer and be more costly, with adverse consequences for his employees and customers,” Hood said.
Those kinds of restrictions end up hurting everyone. Cordato is quick to emphasize the morality of capitalism — how a free and vibrant market does the most good for the highest number of people.
“More than any other system, the free market ends up improving everyone’s well-being,” he said. “Everyone is made better off — including and especially the poor.”