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Richard Cornuelle coined the term “independent sector,” yet when he died on April 26, he was largely forgotten by that very sector. Better evidence of what’s wrong with the sector -- and America in general – is hard to find.

To be fair, Cornuelle’s fame was hindered by his repeatedly being ahead of his time. For instance, back in the 1940s he studied under the pioneering libertarian thinker Ludwig von Mises, whose criticisms of big government are now common in political debate. Similarly, in the 1950s Cornuelle was a program officer at the Volker Fund, one of the very first right-of-center philanthropies attempting to influence public policy in ways that would become common for donors across the political spectrum decades later.

In the 1960s his first book, Reclaiming the American Dream, appeared with his “independent sector” coinage. In the book’s arguments he made substantial use of the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (then rarely quoted but now ubiquitous in social criticism), stressing the Frenchman’s view that voluntary associations are key to America’s well-being. Cornuelle’s work led, at the end of the decade, to a request from President Nixon that Cornuelle set up a federal task force on voluntary action – the now-forgotten precursor to George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” and the faith-based and community initiatives supported by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Cornuelle also cried in the wilderness for many years about the inefficiency not only of big government but also of big business and big philanthropy. In 1975, when many corporations had elaborate hierarchical bureaucracies worthy of a federal agency, he wrote De-Managing America to plea for a flattening of bureaucratic hierarchies in the private sector, an idea that would become conventional wisdom years later.

What ties all these various ideas together? The term “independent sector” provides a clue to Cornuelle’s understanding of what a human being requires to flourish and, as a consequence, how communities of men and women can flourish. In a word: independence.

Cornuelle believed that ordinary people in ordinary places should have a large scope for action, whether they are raising their families, building their businesses, running local governments, or coming to the aid of their neighbors. The threat to such local independence comes from the “scientific,” centralized bureaucracies that from mid-twentieth century onward have grown ever more powerful – in government, businesses, unions, schools, and even charities and philanthropies.

To a narrow-minded libertarian, Cornuelle would say that communities as well as individuals matter, and that some individuals really need and deserve assistance. To a narrow-minded liberal, he would add that such assistance should come from fellow citizens, not government bureaucrats, precisely so the entire community can remain healthy.

Cornuelle deplored

the systematic, irrational disconnection of ordinary people from the business of the society, a radical constriction of the definition of the citizen’s role. In the end, the only opportunities left to ordinary Americans were voting and paying their taxes on time. They had been prejudged incompetent to do much else. Even voluntary organizations, themselves altered by the rationalization philosophy, assumed that ordinary people could not be directly involved in helping each other out of poverty. Volunteers could raise money and attend meetings, but only technically trained professionals could do the real work.

The only remedy, Cornuelle believed, was to create opportunities for ordinary citizens to do things of real consequence, and he didn’t just propose that in writing. He did the hard work of starting new ventures. For example, when Richard Lugar was mayor of Indianapolis, Cornuelle and some friends set up a volunteer program in which mostly working people helped the hardcore unemployed find and hold jobs – at much lower cost and with much higher long-term success rates than existing government programs. In the 1950s, disturbed at the performance of the federal college loan program, he helped establish a private corporation that was similarly successful with low-income students.

Cornuelle’s interest in such concrete efforts lasted to the end of his life, when he helped support an award for social entrepreneurs at the Manhattan Institute. He knew that the spirit of community can only revive if we create “ways to reinvolve people in solving the perplexing problems they see about them, not just in talking about them and certainly not in petitioning government to solve them.”

Obviously, this task creates great opportunities for private philanthropy, yet Cornuelle believed philanthropy had long worked to weaken civic bonds:

Philanthropy was, from the beginning, enthusiastically involved in the project to nationalize community. It financed the studies that documented the presumed inadequacies of primary and voluntary institutions. It trained the specialized professionals who now comprise what critics call “the new class.” It financed the new institutions that devised the step by step centralization of responsibility.

Early on, philanthropy moved from providing direct services to advocacy, dutifully and consistently advocating transfers of responsibility to more monopolistic, centralized, professionalized, and authoritarian institutions. In the 1950s and 1960s, I was…a “philanthropoid.” Then it was simply understood that philanthropy’s task was to lubricate transfers of responsibility to ever more remote and authoritarian institutions.

In all sectors of society, Cornuelle insisted, authority and responsibility should not be taken away from our fellow man and passed to distant, centralized potentates. Alas, while centralizing power “was a breeze,” devolving power to ordinary Americans “will be a monumental task.” As Cornuelle would say, let none of us abandon our individual responsibility to assist our fellow citizens in this urgent civic task.

FOOTNOTE: To learn more about Cornuelle, begin with a talk he gave to the Philanthropy Roundtable in 1999, available via the Heartland Institute (it’s the source of the quotations in this article). Perhaps the other best short introduction to his thought is “New Work for Invisible Hands,” published in the Times Literary Supplement (April 5, 1991) and available online for a small fee. His Reclaiming the American Dream was re-issued in 1993 with a new Afterword that takes stock of his work over the years; it is still in print. Google Books has large excerpts available from his out-of-print books De-managing America and Healing America. Liberty Fund has a free interview with Cornuelle by William Dennis here. Dennis also wrote an excellent obituary of Cornuelle, as did William Schambra and Jay Hein. A complete list of obituaries is available at Conversations on Philanthropy, one of Cornuelle’s final projects and an excellent source of serious academic work on the independent sector.