May 23, 2012

Profiles in Liberty: Phil Kerpen

By: Jacqueline Otto

Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment, a columnist on Fox News Opinion, and chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition. Prior to joining American Commitment, he served as vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. Phil has also previously worked as an analyst and researcher for the Free Enterprise Fund, the Club for Growth, and the Cato Institute.

His op-eds have run in newspapers across the country and he is a frequent radio and television commentator on economic growth issues. His book, Democracy Denied, has received exemplary reviews from many prominent people including Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Jim DeMint, and Rand Paul. Herman Cain personally called Phil while he was at the height of his campaign to tell him how much he learned from the book.

Engaging the Public Debate.

While in college at the University of Pittsburgh, Phil found his extracurricular time with the debate team more interesting than his classes.

I was probably influenced in that regard by my debate coach at the time, who advocated an “outward activist turn,” as he called it. He was very left-wing, so there’s some irony that I became a free-market activist.

He says that he “became disillusioned with insularity of academic debate” and “wanted to directly engage in the public policy process.” It was this desire to directly engage public policy that brought him to Washington, DC, in 1999 as an intern at the Cato Institute.

“Start as an intern,” he advises to anyone looking to engage the public debate.

That’s the easiest way to get a foot in the door and start making connections. Intern for someone whose work you admire and learn what you can.

Break into op-ed writing by coauthoring with someone who is experienced and established. Then you’ll have a good body of work before you start pitching pieces with a solo byline.

For Phil, that person “whose work he admired” and who was more “experienced and established” to help him break into writing, was the man for whom he interned, Steve Moore. At the time Moore was a fellow at the Cato Institute, currently you may know him as a writer for the Wall Street Journal and a regular commentator on Fox News and CNN.

Phil attributes his personal success in great part to his loyalty to his mentor. He moved with Moore to other jobs after the Cato Institute and eventually helped in the founding of the Free Enterprise Fund.

One of his proudest moments is when he found out over a conference call that Moore was being removed from his position with the organization where they both worked at the time.

I immediately quit, on the call, and said I was going with Steve. Some others came over later, but I was the only one who quit on the spot. I’m proud of that.

Phil says that the lesson to be learned from his experience with Moore is that relationships with people are more important than affiliations with organizations. Such friendships should be like market interactions, where you create value for each other where there wasn’t value before.

This mentality is what distinguished Phil as an intern and helped him break out from the internship scene. Rather than narrowly focusing on his own career, he focused on creating value for other people with the long-term vision of those relationships advancing his career.

Promoting Economic Growth.

While many writers and public policy advocates focus on narrow issues, Phil as made his career by focusing about 12-18 months in the future. He found that single-issue people spend their whole lives preparing for a public debate on their area of specialty, which may come only once in their careers. This seemed like a waste of resources to Phil, and he decided to engage the public debate where he found it at any given time. This meant that in 2008 he worked on the issue of cap and trade, in 2009 he worked on the economics of healthcare, and in 2012 he is working on the mechanisms of political accountability for unelected bureaucrats.

I’ve always believed promoting economic growth is the most important public policy objective. When the economy is growing we have more resources to solve all of our individual and societal problems. When we’re not growing, we really can’t afford to worry about much else. So I’ve focused on economic issues, and market-oriented solutions almost always produce better outcomes that coercive government schemes.

One of Phil’s greatest influences was economist Julian Simon, “the doomslayer.” Simon is famous for redefining the debates about population growth, natural resources, energy, and the environment by using real facts and economics.

I never met Simon, who passed away before I moved to DC, but I did have the honor of doing a lot of the research for his posthumous book It’s Getting Better All the Time that Steve Moore coauthored with him. I like to think that Steve Moore inherited the doomslaying mantle from Simon, and that someday I’ll carry it on.

A Final Piece of Advice from Phil.

For young people interested in engaging the public debate, Phil advises that you write, “even if it’s not your job.” Nothing teaches you the mechanics of communicating information and making arguments quite like writing about them. He also hastens to add that “everyone needs an editor.”

His advice is that if you and a few friends, maybe fellow students or interns, are looking for a way to gain experience that you should start blogging. Link to each other’s work to increase your traffic and your search engine placement, and then edit for each other.

The great thing about the Internet is that the barriers to entry are extremely low. Anyone can start blogging, tweeting, connecting. If you’re saying things that are smart, clever, or funny you can grow a big following pretty quickly. What you say matters more than who you are. It’s an equalizer.

Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity, just start doing what you want to do. Work hard and opportunities will follow.

To keep up with Phil’s work, make sure to check out American Commitment, and follow him on Twitter.


Jacqueline Otto is a commentator and writer. Her work has been published in Fox News, Investor’s Business Daily, The Daily Caller, Townhall, The Austin-American Statesman, and the American Spectator. She is regular columnist for the American Enterprise Institute’s Project on Values and Capitalism and America’s Future Foundation’s Free the Future blog. She is also a new media consultant working with the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. Jacqueline is on Twitter at@jacque_otto.