by Bill Dennis
With the death of Richard Cornuelle on April 26, America has lost one of its great champions of liberty. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation has lost an old and good friend.
In 1949 Cornuelle joined the famous economic seminar of Ludwig von Mises that met twice a week in Manhattan. Here he met other notable figures such as Frank Meyer, Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, Murray Rothbard, and the young Leonard Liggio. Here he imbibed the libertarianism of Austrian economics, but, as he later wrote, he also came to see two weaknesses in the thinking of the libertarians of the day. They had no theory of community, and they could not account for the internal, hierarchical, command and control successes of contemporary capitalist organization. Working with these insights, he became a modern Tocqueville, reviving thinking about what he labeled the “independent sector” of society, an argument developed at length in Reclaiming the American Dream (1965). In later years, Cornuelle came to believe that this sector approach to American life was incorrect. There really was only the vast civil society composed of private enterprise, voluntary associations, and family life, and the governmental sector, meant to be the servant of the civil society, but increasingly, and to the detriment of liberty, the master off all the rest. Cornuelle would spend the rest of his intellectual life promoting the understanding and health of civil society and its institutions
After a period of trying unsuccessfully to get political figures to act upon his ideas [he found that the politicians would often talk the talk of voluntary endeavor, but were never really ready to relinquish power] , Cornuelle turned away from activism to support the expansion of the institutions of the civil society to confront perceived social ills. This apolitical approach allowed him to cooperate with persons of different political stripes who nevertheless shared with him the interest in promoting voluntary community activities outside of, and often in opposition to, the social welfare state. He was especially critical of “the regimentation of work,” which “has created a political majority whose attitudes about themselves and their world are heavily conditioned by a lifelong habit of subordination….How can people see the value of independence and self-propulsion when they work in a system in which they are dependent and subordinate?” (“New Work for Invisible Hands,” Times Literary Supplement, April 5, 1991, an excellent late statement of Cornuelle’s views.)
Cornuelle devoted his 1976 book Demanaging America to the application of what might be called “libertarian communalism”, a critique of the nation state and the bureaucratic structures of modern educational, philanthropic, and business organization. And he never lost his faith that the “demanaging” of these institutions was well underway. In Healing America (1983) he provided a prescient look at the long run negative consequences of the growth of the welfare state sustained by borrowed money and monetary inflation, a critique well worth reading in light of today’s economic crisis.
Over the last years, Cornuelle divided his philanthropy among projects supporting research in Austrian economics, prizes offered through the Manhattan Institute for successful voluntary ventures in social reform, work on the nature of philanthropy and the civil society through the Project for New Philanthropy Studies and its journal, Conversations on Philanthropy, and, through the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a program of prizes, conferences, and research based on the application of the Austrian perspective of methodological individualism to areas of inquiry outside of the usual interests of academic economists.
Reclaiming the American Dream is available in a 1993 reprint from Transaction Publishers with a thoughtful introduction by Frank Annunziata and a new afterword by Cornuelle himself.