Remembering Richard Cornuelle

May 6th, 2011 at 12:05 am | 6 Comments |

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Richard Cornuelle, a renegade libertarian, died on April 26—a terrible loss.

Early on, Dick had been a doctrinaire free-marketeer and a member of all three of the early libertarian “circles” in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s: those of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. But he soon came to think that “there was a screw loose” in libertarianism, as he put it in a 1993 Afterword to his most famous book, Reclaiming the American Dream (1965).

Dick first stumbled on the loose screw when he wrote an article attacking a three-day work week, decreed by the coal miners’ union. The aim of the three-day week was to preserve jobs in a declining industry. Dick took the standard economists’ line: if an industry were on the wane, it would and should be liquidated so its unneeded workers could “disappear.” His editor suggested that he actually meet some disappearing coal miners, and Dick went to Kentucky and found people who, through no fault of their own, desperately needed help.

Rand and Rothbard had created versions of libertarianism in which any humane consequences of capitalism were secondary. The inviolate right to private property was supposed to reign supreme—regardless of the consequences. As Dick wrote in 1993, libertarianism constantly forced him to make “haunting, morally intolerable midnight choices between liberty and community.”

In about 1957, Dick broke with the libertarians over this problem and again went out into the real world—this time, to see if private efforts could perform humanitarian tasks better than government. He later wrote that even though “there were (and are) grave questions about” whether private initiatives could match “the vast responsibilities of the modern welfare state,” he had been determined to find out if they could.

In 1958, Dick created a competitor to the government’s new student-loan program. His United Student Aid Funds were less bureaucratic for the colleges and less costly to the students. By 1963, the Funds had signed up two-thirds of all American banks. By the fall semester of 1964, 48,000 students were attending 674 colleges with loans re-insured by the Funds. This success led to a December 1964 Look magazine story that called Dick “a former right-wing anarchist who chopped his way out of dark ideology toward a combination of principle and humane concern.”

In 1968, Life magazine lauded Dick’s Center for Independent Action in Indianapolis, which had trained the “hard-core 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 important, virtually all of the newly employed workers in Dick’s Indianapolis project kept their jobs. The Center for Independent Action also renovated slum housing at a cost that local banks had predicted was unachievable.

However, the “independent sector,” as Dick called it—the part of society that is neither for-profit nor governmental—did not take his lead, and the government stymied some of his efforts. In the case of the student-loan program, the federal government expanded eligibility to all students, not just the needy ones. There was no way that Dick’s program could compete with such a huge middle-class entitlement. Dick disappeared from political view in the 1970s, except for two more books: De-Managing America (1976) and Healing America (1983).

In 1991, Critical Review, the scholarly journal I edit, was in desperate need of someone who could raise the small amount of money required for its survival. At just that moment, I found out about Dick through an article he’d just written for the TLS, “New Work for Invisible Hands.” In it, Dick pointed out that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, libertarians’ 50-year crusade against central planning was no longer relevant. Dick asked, in effect: What is the libertarian answer to the unplanned, case-by-case, social-problem-centric government that we’d had in the West since the Progressive Era? The question could no longer be dodged by equating this type of government with Iron-Curtain communism.

Together, Dick and I created the Critical Review Foundation (CRF), and Dick served for many years as its first president, doing all sorts of things for it that he never told me about. Our initial meeting had been in his hospital room after the first of what would be several major surgeries over the years, but later I learned that nonetheless, during those years Dick made many an arduous fundraising trip across America.

Even in a brief encounter, one could sense that he was a rare human being, genuinely kind-hearted, open minded, intellectually inquisitive and delighted by new ideas. His friends included Saul Alinsky, Robert Heilbroner, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Betty Friedan. Dick never let politics get in the way of friendship; but in any event, many on the left admired his vision of a de-bureaucratized society.

Dick was a terrific friend to me, too. He was not merely smart and funny but loyal and wise, and I can’t think of a superlative for how much I learned from him.

Having first met Dick when he was in very fragile health, I thought I was prepared for his death. But I was wrong.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Bunker555

    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.”

  • Elvis Elvisberg

    Very sorry for your loss, Mr. Friedman. Thanks for your thoughtful and illuminating tribute.

  • The Proto-Koch « Blog

    [...] understood the whole Richard Cournelle thing – I’ve only heard bits and pieces. This obit/article explains it all. He is the original libertarian sellout, smart in some ways and dopey in [...]

  • advocatusdiaboli

    All I know is that the Golden Age of the US middle class and the US economy was when unions were strongest, corporations paid way more tax, and higher education was widely affordable. Facts are facts.

  • Scott Lahti

    Sad to hear of Cornuelle’s death. I remember being thunderstruck upon publication by his 1991 essay in the TLS, “New Work For Invisible Hands” (somebody post it online, please!), which is an indispensable item on the syllabus of anyone who addresses, as do I with breath of brimstone and tongue of fire, authoritarian social structures that do not fall under the reductionist strictures of orthodox state-smashing libertarian thought – employer v worker, male v female, parent v child, school v student, corporation v consumer/community, hypermarketization/industrialization v non-market life-spaces, &c. Like Daniel Bell, who resigned from The Public Interest rather than hazard his friendship with his founding co-editor Irving Kristol, Dick sustained many a cross-doctrinal social tie, and as a longtime admirer of the writing of Robert Heilbroner, from whose urbanity, concern with the larger social vision veiled behind orthodox neoclassicism, and impeccably cruise-controlled Maserati of a prose style I learned much because of, and not in spite of, our doctrinal divides, I was happy to read of Dick’s extracurricular link to him as well. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ratio(nalist), than are dreamt of in the all-too unworldly philosophy of those whose worldviews are all too often flash-frozen in amber at the age of sixteen. For those seeking paths to social and cultural liberation more Blakean in their three-dimensional grappling with the essence of man’s earthly estate, may the humane example of Dick Cornuelle stand as one crucial flint against which they may strike sparks that will ignite lifetime conflagrations of thought untrammeled in Promethean torchbearing across night skies yet to chart:

    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken
    Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific, and all his men
    Looked at each other with a wild surmise
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    - Keats, “Upon First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”