Richard Cornuelle, R.I.P.


American libertarian movement founding father Richard Cornuelle died last week at age 84.

Cornuelle was introduced to libertarianism through his older brother Herbert Cornuelle, whom he admired greatly. Herbert had worked directly under Loren Miller at the 1940s Bureau of Government Research, a private foundation. Miller was in many ways the ur-source of modern libertarianism as a movement since he converted Harold Luhnow, who ran the Volker Fund, which was the only action going in libertarian financing in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Volker Fund supported the university berths of both Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, kept Murray Rothbard going through the 50s by paying him to read widely and find libertarian fellow travelers and funded his Man, Economy, and State, among other works; ran the seminars from which Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom arose; and helped fund Americans' travel to Mont Pelerin Society meetings.

In the 1950s, Richard Cornuelle worked for the Volker Fund himself, helping find and introduce to each other the rare scattered gangs of libertarian-leaning scholars. Cornuelle told me of finding "tearful recognition that there was someone else out there [who believed in libertarianism]--everyone thought they were the last one."

At the advice of Laissez-Faire Books' Andrea Millen Rich, Cornuelle was one of the very first people I interviewed in researching my book on the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. He was a great choice to begin with: there from the beginning but at that point mostly above the fray, no longer considering himself an active part of the movement but still recognizing its achievements. His affection and admiration for his old associates and comrades from Mises to Rothbard was clear and invigorating.

Cornuelle had been Garet Garrett's assistant, a student of Mises' at NYU, and first great booster of Rothbard's career; at the time I interviewed him in 1996 he was publisher for Critical Review, a scholarly academic journal that both promoted, explored, and questioned and tested libertarian ideas.

Some details from the New York Times obituary (which missed the Volker connection entirely) extending the institutional history of Cornuelle's career:

In the 1950s, Mr. Cornuelle was vice president and editorial director of the Princeton Panel, a center for the study of American capitalism; he was later executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

He helped found several nonprofit organizations, including United Student Aid Funds (now USA Funds), which guarantees student loans….

Though the news media of the 1960s often described Mr. Cornuelle as a conservative, he later bristled at the term, his wife said on Friday. In any case, he took pains throughout his life to articulate his personal construction of the word.

As he told Life magazine in 1968, "The notion that a conservative is indifferent to human problems is part of a myth — the same myth that says the government is the only instrument that can solve social problems."

Cornuelle's popularizing of how the voluntary sector could meet social needs also led him to being head of a government task force on the voluntary sector for the Nixon administration in 1969. He concluded of this effort, in the afterword to the 1993 edition of his 1965 classic on voluntarism, Reclaiming the American Dream, that "I was sure we had at last succeeded in building a platform from which a great renaissance of independent action could be launched. But that was a naive and idle expectation….I cannot imagine why I thought for a moment that the state could be persuaded to contrive its own undoing." In that same afterword, he apologized for in that era painting himself as a "right-wing extremist" who had seen the light; he felt explaining the peculiarities of libertarianism in that benighted era would be too complicated and useless.

Jeffrey Friedman, founder and editor of Critical Review, which Cornuelle was publisher of through most of the 90s, sums up some of the more controversial positions Cornuelle took within the standard libertarian catechism, and some of his real-world effects, in an email he sent to friends and supporters of the journal. Some of the key points:

In 1958, [Cornuelle] created a competitor to the government's nascent student loan program that was less bureaucratic for the colleges and less costly to the students. By 1963, two-thirds of all American banks were making low-cost loans to any impoverished student whose college declared that he or she was likely to graduate if enrolled. By the fall semester of 1964, 48,000 students were attending 674 colleges with loans reinsured by Dick's organization….

In 1968, Life magazine lauded Dick's Center for Independent Action in Indianapolis, which had trained the "unemployable" and found them jobs with much greater success than had the federal Job Corps. It cost the Job Corps $6695 per person to find someone a job; the Center for Independent Action did it for $22.50. More importantly, virtually all of the newly employed in Dick's Indianapolis project kept their jobs…

But just at the moment in 1991 when Critical Review was in desperate need of someone who could raise the small amount of money that it required, Dick, of whom I had never heard, wrote a wonderful article in the TLS, "New Work for Invisible Hands," pointing out that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, libertarians' 50-year crusade against central planning was no longer relevant. What is "the libertarian answer" to the piecemeal, case-by-case, social-problem-solving government that we'd had in the West since the Progressive Era, Dick asked?…

Needless to say, when Dick and I met, we hit it off immediately. We shared an interest in some of the libertarian criticisms of the efficacy of government action, but we had no truck with "the moral argument" that so many libertarians (especially potential donors, it seems) think are adequate….

Austrian economist Peter Boettke's memories of Cornuelle, with good summations of some of Cornuelle's key ideas and books:

His book De-Managing America (1975) is a radical denunciation of the "front office" view of society as requiring management by an educated technocratic elite and any idea of a natural aristocracy. But Dick understood as well that in real democratic ways of relating with one another that granted authority did play an essential role in social progress. Earned authority was real and in fact vital, but imposed authority was pretend and destructive. Dick's critique of modern US policy was that we had lost sight of the power of individuals and communities to mobilize and effectively address even the most pressing social issues, and instead we were derailed into thinking that we needed politicians and the state to realize the good society.

In Healing America (1983) Cornuelle argued that what was required was a radical reconsideration of the scope of government responsibility. Public policy had come to a dead end. We had come to believe that we cannot make society habitable without making government bigger, and yet we cannot pay the cost of the bigger government without creating more problems that add to the cost of government. A vicious cycle ensued following the Great Depression --- "Government is growing as it fails, and, to a chilling degree, it is growing because it is failing."…….

Dick's most well-known work was Reclaiming the American Dream (1965, reprinted in 1993). The subtitle for that book is: "The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations." His argument builds on Tocqueville and as stated above, Dick saw the American Dream as a society of free and responsible individuals, who prosper in a vibrant commercial life, and live and participate in caring communities…..

Other tributes to Cornuelle from Bill Dennis at the Atlas Network and Gus DiZerega of Studies in Emergent Order ("Everything I have written or will write about civil society owes an immense debt to Dick Cornuelle, and in my writings it is civil society, and not the market, that is the locus of freedom and creativity. So this is no small thing").

Cornuelle was affectionately aware of how far the movement had to go, while remaining hopeful. "Opposing the state has become an industry," Cornuelle told me. "And it failed. The state is doing fine….did it preserve the point of view through a dark time? It did that. But did it slow down the growth of the state? I don't see any evidence of that. Murray [Rothbard] and I used to talk about blowing up the UN. Now the talk at these free market foundations is about fringe benefits."

This was all said with humor, and Cornuelle never gave up being excited about the possibility for these ideas' future. Cornuelle's old friend Andrea Millen Rich told me how even toward the end of his life, on meeting active younger libertarians such as June Arunga, Cornuelle's excitement toward the finding and cultivating of libertarian thought and action, begun during his Volker days in the 1950s, was still vivid and driving.

Through his support of other scholars and his own set of ideas about how a voluntary sector can and must provide the services people think they must rely on the state for, Cornuelle's contributions to the libertarian project were of immense importance. He will be missed.