Garrett Ballengee is the executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. He graduated from the Koch Internship Program in summer 2011 and from the Koch Associate Program in 2012.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, a small “suburb” of about 1,300 people seven miles south of Parkersburg, which is also a relatively small town (pop. 31,000) right on the Ohio River. Looking back, my community was an interesting mix of people—from the very rural and very poor to the highly educated and successful. Armed with a sense of perspective that only time and distance can provide, I consider myself lucky to have grown up among such an eclectic group of people.
Who got you interested in your career field?
Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it was an undergraduate economics professor at West Virginia University, Matt Ryan (now a professor at Duquesne University). Professor Ryan introduced me to the world of economics, and the question of how societies allocate scarce resources was quite intriguing to me. He also introduced me to the Charles Koch Institute’s educational programs, which presented a whole new career opportunity—public policy. Prior to that, as a finance major, I was interested in banking and the financial sector, but that started to change when I finished the Koch Internship Program and moved to the Koch Associate Program. I slowly realized that public policy, specifically the non-profit, free-market public policy space, was where I wanted—and needed—to dedicate my time.
What book changed your life?
It is so clichéd that it is almost not worth mentioning, but Atlas Shrugged opened my mind to a different way of thinking. While I didn’t necessarily agree with everything Ayn Rand wrote—and still don’t—it forced me to recognize alternative ways of thinking about the world around me. It was, perhaps, the first time I had discovered—and been forced to confront—my own naïveté.
What place has challenged your thinking?
My native West Virginia has provided ample opportunity to reorient my thinking on many things. West Virginia has always been a relatively poor state, but growing up there, the answer for the predicament is some variation of “lack of jobs,” “lack of opportunity,” “out-of-state corporations,” etc. As a high schooler, I bought into that orthodoxy—which is, in some ways, true. But over time, and especially as I began my free-market journey, I began to take a step back and ask, “Why?” Why are jobs in scarce supply? Why are opportunities so hard to find? Why is West Virginia so poor? My study of economics and my time at the Charles Koch Institute answered those questions in a way that, for the first time in my life, I found coherent and intellectually satisfying.
Why did you participate in a Charles Koch Institute educational program?
I was curious about the programs. They were highly recommended, but I wasn’t familiar with the Charles Koch Institute, Charles Koch, or anything considered “free market” beyond my economics class and initial reading of Atlas Shrugged. I wanted to see what they were all about. I have always been immensely curious about things, and that led me to my time at the Institute. Once I began to research the types of opportunities that the Institute made available, the quality of instruction and lecturers, and the ability to potentially change the world for the better—even at a marginal level—I was hooked.
What was most memorable about the Institute’s educational programs?
The immense amount of learning that took place is the most memorable part of my time in the Koch Internship and Associate Programs. My scholastic background was in finance, so I really hadn’t been exposed to an environment where debate, dialogue, and the search for “truth” was so prominent and important. I cannot explain the amount of knowledge that I soaked up during my time in KIP and KAP—I just know that I went into KIP not even knowing what a libertarian was. KIP and KAP were the springboard for this intellectual growth. The Institute’s educational programs are the perfect embodiment of the idea that you get out of something what you put into it.
What do you want to be known for?
What’s the one piece of advice you’ve taken to heart?
I think the most valuable advice that I’ve been given can be boiled down into the following: “Stay curious. Don’t waste your gifts. Be humble. Introspection is both friend and foe. Cherish the struggle.”