Richard Cornuelle (1927-2011)

From Jeffrey Friedman:

Richard Cornuelle, the cofounder and first president of the Critical Review Foundation, died on April 26, 2011 in New York City. Although the cause was cancer, he was not in pain and was, in fact, happy at the end, remembering old times--amazing times. 

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 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 for which any humane consequences of capitalism were secondary. In these libertarianisms, the inviolate right to private property reigned 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 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 was 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, Dick's program had signed up two-thirds of all American banks. By the fall semester of 1964, 48,000 students were attending 674 colleges with loans reinsured by Dick's program. This success led to a December 1964 Look magazine story that called Cornuelle “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. Dick's Center also renovated slum housing at a cost that local banks had predicted was unachievable.

If you can find that Life article in particular (June 28, 1968), you will see how Dick's insight and pragmatism made these programs work. Dick never tooted his own horn, so it was only after his death that I found these articles and learned of the magnitude of what he had achieved. More than anyone else I know or have heard of, Dick was practical and hard-headed while also being an idealistic intellectual.

However, the "independent sector," as Dick called it--the part of a 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, and 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 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 his article in the TLS, "New Work for Invisible Hands." The article pointed out that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, libertarians' 50-year crusade against central planning was no longer relevant. Dick asked: 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?

This was a question I'd been asking in Critical Review, too, and it was getting me into trouble with libertarians, who had their own answer: humanitarian government was immoral, even evil, because it violated the sacred property rights of the individual taxpayer.

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 did not think "moral arguments" for capitalism adequately answered left-wing criticisms of it. We agreed that if libertarianism meant coal miners (or anyone else) starving as a matter of "man's rights," we wanted no part of it.

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 several major surgeries over the years, but later I learned that as president of CRF, he had made many an arduous fundraising trip all across America. Through these efforts and the generosity of Dick's wife, Betty, Critical Review thrived, and CRF was able to start holding the summer seminars on “neo-libertarianism” that influenced so many future scholars and pundits. Some of you will remember meeting Dick and Betty at one of the seminar parties they threw at their glamorous West Village house.

Even in a brief encounter, one could sense that Dick was a rare human being, genuinely kind-hearted, open minded, and delighted by new ideas. His friends included Saul Alinsky; the socialist economist Robert Heilbroner; the New Left chronicler Kirkpatrick Sale; and Betty Friedan. He never let politics get in the way of friendship, and 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 wise and loyal, and I can't find a superlative for how much I learned from him—even, a little, how to write. (He was a master of the craft; see "The Power and Poverty of Libertarian Thought" in Critical Review vol. 6, no. 1, an expanded version of his 1991 TLS piece.)

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