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The Man Who Named the “Independent Sector”: The Legacy of Richard Cornuelle

William A. Schambra

With the death of Richard Cornuelle last week at the age of 84, America’s “independent sector” has lost one of its most faithful and vigorous champions.

Indeed, one of his claims to fame was the very invention of the term “independent sector,” deployed in his landmark 1965 volume Reclaiming the American Dream as a way to describe, in the words of the book’s subtitle, “the role of private individuals and voluntary associations” in our national life.

Richard Cornuelle was a life-long libertarian, convinced that “man’s power over man should be strictly limited and that any design for social improvement that depended on government for its execution was ill-advised.”

He developed this political outlook in his studies with one of its pioneers, Ludwig von Mises, then teaching at the Graduate School of Business at New York University. It was the only job, Mr. Cornuelle noted, that even a libertarian economic genius like Mr. von Mises could find in the late 1940s, when big-government devotees utterly dominated the American academy.

Mr. Cornuelle became a program officer at one of the early foundations on the right, the William Volker Fund, where he mined economics journals for telltale indications of libertarian tendencies. Once he discovered these scholars—typically scattered and disconnected loners at lower-tier colleges—the foundation would offer them what modest financial support it could afford.

In a time when lurid headlines tell stories of behemoth conservative foundations buying and selling public policy at will, it is hard indeed to imagine these hardscrabble origins. As Mr. Cornuelle put it, free-market advocates could fit in a phone booth, possessed by the “haunting, subliminal suspicion that we were fighting not just a losing battle but a war already lost.”

In a sentiment familiar to any foundation program officer, Mr. Cornuelle soon cast covetous glances at the Volker grants going not to his projects but rather to the small, local humanitarian groups that William Volker, who created the foundation, said his philanthropy should also support. Instead of converting those grants to his cause, however, they soon converted Mr. Cornuelle to theirs—the notion that human suffering was best reduced by local voluntary efforts. Mr. Cornuelle’s abstract intellectual inclinations could not efface his origins as the son of a Midwestern Presbyterian minister, called to a life of purpose and service.

Libertarianism may have offered a philosophically devastating analysis of the failures of government social programs and the superiority of free markets, in his view. But it failed to speak to our irrepressible humanitarian impulses, for which government programs, however faulty, seemed to be the only politically plausible expression.

In Reclaiming the American Dream, Mr. Cornuelle outlined a way to deal with urgent social needs in a manner both humane and free. Drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville (by no means as commonly cited then as today), he noted that “as a frontier people, accustomed to interdependence, we developed a genius for solving common problems. People joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches, opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, to help the poor.”

Mr. Cornuelle maintained that we had all but forgotten this vast array of voluntary civic associations—an “important third force” which he termed “the independent sector”—in our growing reliance on government-financed, centrally administered, professionally delivered social services.

But he insisted that the human “desire to serve” was just as primal and powerful as the yearning for political power or material gain, and once unleashed, it could re-energize our voluntary associations and address our problems without oppressive bureaucracies.

Even 50 years ago, Mr. Cornuelle understood that America’s nonprofits had all too readily become servile adjuncts of government. But he looked to the “revival of a lively competition” between government and nonprofits, even though that very idea “is by a weird public myth, thought to be illegitimate, disruptive, divisive, unproductive, and perhaps immoral.”

To drive home the point, he obtained financing from several foundations to start private programs that worked to provide housing, urban renewal, employment, and especially low-income college loans that proved to be at once more effective and less expensive than their government counterparts.

“The notion that a conservative is indifferent to human problems is part of a myth—the same myth that says that the government is the only instrument that can solve social problems,” Mr. Cornuelle insisted in a Life magazine article on his efforts in June 1968.

It is entirely forgotten today, but well before other conservative presidents in the 1980s extolled the virtues of “private-sector initiatives” or “a thousand points of light,” Richard Nixon eagerly embraced Mr. Cornuelle’s voluntarist notions.

In his 1969 inaugural address, President Nixon insisted that “to match the magnitude of our tasks, we need the energies of our people enlisted not only in grand enterprises but more importantly in those small, splendid efforts that make headlines in the neighborhood newspaper instead of the national journal.”

President Nixon started both a Cabinet committee and a White House office on voluntary action to cultivate this approach.

The rapid and quiet demise of President Nixon’s volunteerism program, as well as similar experiences with civil-society efforts in subsequent administrations, taught Mr. Cornuelle that the “independent sector”—in his understanding, nonpolitical or even counterpolitical—was not likely to be revived by any political figure.

But in his later years, with the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism abroad and the decline of centralized, command-and-control corporate organization at home, Mr. Cornuelle came to the optimistic view that completely without elite guidance, everyday citizens were beginning to reorganize themselves into small, self-governing communities.

No longer satisfied with the roles of passive voter and taxpayer or pliant corporate employee, they wanted to have a larger and more immediate say in their own lives through their own, freely organized, self-administered associations.

Mr. Cornuelle suggested that libertarian thinkers—who had so accurately described the theoretical superiority of free markets to government management but who had so little to say about solving social problems—now needed to turn their minds to this new phenomenon.

So he organized financial support for efforts by Lenore Ealy at the journal Conversations on Philanthropy, as well as scholars associated with George Mason University and the New York City think tank Manhattan Institute, to document, celebrate, and provide a secure theoretical footing for these new civic examples of what libertarians call “spontaneous order.”

Leaders of today’s nonprofit organizations will look at Richard Cornuelle’s call for competition, rather than collaboration, with government agencies as hopelessly naïve, given their massive reliance on government money.

Yet with governments at all levels today resolved to balance their budgets on the backs of nonprofits, it is no longer so evident that “public-private partnership” is the path recommended by realism.

At any rate, it is a continuing source of sadness for any champion of civil society to see its once-proud and self-sustaining institutions engaged in such vigorous denial of their own capacity to meet society’s problems were they forced to rely on voluntary contributions rather than mandatory taxation.

But Mr. Cornuelle’s life and message should be even more compelling and perhaps troubling for his conservative colleagues today, who seem to devote their political energies almost exclusively to engineering a decline in government spending.

Mr. Cornuelle maintained that it is not enough to show that government programs are too expensive or ineffective. Champions of a free society must also demonstrate, both in thought and in practice, that it too can provide ways to satisfy the human impulse to serve others and to alleviate their suffering.

Conservative donors today seem to be more focused on securing electoral victory for their ideas than on nurturing their concrete expression in the resuscitation of local civic associations.

Richard Cornuelle’s life and work remind us that for friends of liberty, no momentary political triumph is an adequate substitute for the painstaking, immediate, hands-on work of reconstituting, in thought and deed, the sector to which he affixed the proud adjective “independent.”

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