Originally published: 1965
199 pages

Chapter 30

RECLAIMING THE AMERICAN DREAM


Richard C. Cornuelle

 
All of us at some point have asked ourselves where we fit in. Sometimes fitting in only means getting along in a small social group; the ultimate question for society, though, is how do we help each human being fit within the larger group that constitutes our culture? Without human connectedness life can be both difficult and solitary-and discouraging. When Richard Cornuelle wrote Reclaiming the American Dream his intention was to explain the role of being connected in the most direct fashion: by voluntarily helping one another. He felt he could turn his observations and comments into a "political" opportunity, to prove a point and offer a real-world example.
     Yet there is also a legitimate sense in which Cornuelle intended his book to be apolitical, or more accurately anti-political. For him, the essence of volunteerism was to keep politics and the government out of people's affairs. With governmental intrusion comes money, bureaucracy, distant administrators instead of those who act directly, and arbitrary standards and statistical goals meant to establish a one-size-fits-all prototype. The bureaucratic attitude morphs into the prosaic jurisdictional and intellectual conceit of "we know best" that will brook no intrusion and no review. This immodesty becomes not just an assertion, but a fact. For Cornuelle, bureaucratic governance proceeds to the extreme detriment of the many services that we would voluntarily, and far more effectively, render one another in its absence.
     As Cornuelle explains, with the bureaucratic model the essence of volunteerism-caring-is largely lost, and in its place is created obligation of the most perfunctory kind. Study after study has shown

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that those who successfully help the poor, the disadvantaged, the handicapped, or even those just ignorant of some portion of society's avenues, are those who care about them and engage in their efforts for concrete (and almost certainly to some extent, altruistic) reasons. On the other hand, those in this arena who instead see primarily a job, a paycheck, and secure retirement and health benefits, cannot effectively fulfill the needs of this sector of society by the very status of their relationship to those within it. They perform a service, surely, but their connection and thus their effectiveness is far less certain.
     Conservatives, who were rising to intellectual prominence at the time of the initial publication of Reclaiming the American Dream in 1965, investigated many aspects of government's activities and saw a primary problem: volunteerism could not exist comfortably in a statist society where government was supposed to take care of all those who did not or could not take care of themselves. Aptly enough, these analysts saw government inhibiting or even driving private efforts out of the marketplace and felt the merit of Cornuelle's ideas and the practicality of their application; they integrated them into their own larger paradigm of less government that they hoped meant less distortion of private activities.
     Cornuelle's concept is that big is not better in a society where grand designs are a political disease. He argues that millions of small efforts, made day after day, are what make the difference so that caring becomes second nature and self-help grows. The community existed before the state;
the caring individual connection prevailed before the advent of the dispassionate and unconnected machinery of government.
     The underlying problem for any public effort (that is, any political effort) is to decide when a given individual cannot take care of himself. But, because of the nature of government programs, which are supposed to be utterly egalitarian, policy has to be designed to reach out equally to everyone. That allows a lot of people to self-select, causing several relatively obvious detrimental consequences. It can also short-circuit the capabilities of others who are told they need help (often by those wishing to ensure the full reach of their bureaucratic franchise), and who unnecessarily and unfortunately succumb to those declarations.
     Inevitably, the definition of when someone was unable to help themselves expanded whenever any particular assistance program took shape and some people at the fringe did not qualify. Cornuelle saw new, more generous and more comprehensive programs become

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"necessary" to remedy the situation of those few who were left out; as programs expanded, there were more new people on the edges, and they were also incorporated in a never-ending circle of enlarging government "help." A culture of dependency was born. Government caring grew, unabated-simply because there was always someone left on the periphery, and always some political figure or bureaucrat who knew these problem citizens (or citizen problems) could be helped. To the mid-century liberal, seeing the world as it could be, there was nothing we could not afford, and there was nothing we could not fix. Life did not "happen;" and programs grew inexorably.
     The value and success of government assistance began to self-destruct-in the broadest understanding of government's purpose-as a result of President Franklin Roosevelt's political offer of a "New Deal" in the 1930s. At that time, because of the debilitating effects of the Great Depression, the American people were told and began to believe that security was more important than freedom-that high levels of taxation and government control of the economy were necessary to protect their lives and livelihoods. This development limited the necessity and reduced the opportunity for us to take care of ourselves. It was the genesis of the culture of dependency. The growth of this culture conferred a spurious moral superiority on liberals who, because they offered the needy direct support instead of enhanced opportunities for self-help, eagerly claimed the mantle of compassion. (How great was the political motivation in this course is a question for another place, but one that might be profitably addressed from many points of view.)
     Cornuelle takes an opposite tack. He writes that social problems that are cultural as well as individual are best addressed on an elemental level. Doing so involves making repeated assessments of and adjustments to measures of actual assistance while emphasizing the opportunity to those being helped to bolster their own situations and character, as argued in Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences (Chapter 35) and Charles Murray's In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government (Chapter 31). These are things that government (and particularly politicians) are less well equipped to do than might be hoped. As welfarism develops, intellectual/political conflicts of interest may arise in a most unseemly manner and a fatal intellectual conceit can arise. As well, a superficial compassion born of political habit and perfunctory judgment, not concern, can distort what eventuates.
     In Cornuelle's view, volunteerism addresses social problems by serving as an alternative to, not an adjunct of, the state. He sees the

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advantages of a competition of ideas and actions (such as school choice advocates offer, who today challenge the entrenched public education monopoly). Bureaucrats do not care, do not see, and do not act as volunteers do. This is not to paint all
bureaucrats as bad, only as different. Their power, their resources, their view, and their mandate are all different. The bureaucratic mindset developed into the mid-century Democrat method of government assistance: if there is a problem, the first thing to do is deliver money to fix it.
     Cornuelle sees things differently: solutions that address causes should be the first order of business; in the government model they are generally the last. Regrettably, on the political stage wholesale problem solving is never personal and thus it is ultimately less effective (but much easier to implement) than local answers to local problems. Individual problems, it is most important to understand, have specific causes. The government, however, never starts at step one: rational assessment of the root of the problem and the development of some direct action to alter, reverse, or adjust the antecedent cause in order to obtain a different and hopefully more permanent result.
     Cornuelle recognizes that dispassionate and doctrinaire government is most of the problem. Government, by its very nature, often prevents real solutions. He also understands that the political effect of more government, encompassed in proliferating programs, is always electorally appealing. Politicians find it hard not to offer or support "free" government services or handouts, especially once such programs are established and the public has become accustomed to them. The political answer to programs that are not working is to simply make them bigger-the reason for failure must be that we are not doing enough; it could never be that we are already, inappropriately, doing too much, or worse, simply doing something wrong.
     Two observations as to why public administration goes awry: Parkinson's second law, that expenditures rise to meet income, and humorist Will Rogers's commentary that we are lucky we don't get all the government we pay for (government waste being good from at least this perspective). But neither offers effective countermeasures to big government, other than that matters will improve with the reduction of taxes and/or a reduction in spending-that is, by starving the beast or suffocating it. Cornuelle believes in both methods, but he also argues that conservatives have to offer viable alternatives in addition to the suggestion of reduced government involvement.
     Cutting taxes, of course, often means cutting already existing services,

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services the liberals are exceedingly clever at calling "entitlements." How many would vote to rescind something poor or disadvantaged people are "entitled" to? (These issues are discussed more directly in Wilhelm Ropke's A Humane Economy [Chapter 33].) This is where Cornuelle steps in with his observation that many government assistance programs are over-intrusive and, as a result, over-funded, and rarely accomplish what they were designed to do in the first place. If they did, as is somewhat obvious, both the programs and the bureaucracies that support them would self-extinguish. Cornuelle notes that to justify both their existence and the expansion of their franchise,

               [t]he government sector's boosters overstate public problems. They
               also say problems have causes only the government can remedy.

The usefulness of these claims, for political purposes, is self-evident, yet the fallacy of their substance is equally manifest. Reordering, which essentially means reducing, the efforts and the resources used to support the government's agenda was necessary. Here Cornuelle anticipates by forty years former Congressman Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract with America and overt
conservatism. Gingrich was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the Clinton Administration and one of the main architects of modern welfare reform. Gingrich's program, like Cornuelle's before it, intended to change the default mechanism of social assistance from the public to the private sector. As Friedrich von Hayek notes in The Road to Serfdom (Chapter 13), and James Madison observes two hundred years earlier in The Federalist No. 44 (Chapter 6), if we give government a job to do we also must give it the requisite power and money to achieve the goal. The incremental buildup of this power as we ask government to do more and more is not easily turned around when it becomes a monster. As every conservative since the time of President Franklin Roosevelt has grasped, the conservative movement has always stood for the idea (and ideal) that each of us is personally responsible for himself in far greater measure than government is or should or can be. That is something the majority of Americans still believe. How to turn this into an electoral reality is another matter.
     Witness President Bill Clinton's assertion in 1996, when he signed the massive welfare reform bill (welfare to workfare), that "the era of big government is over." Despite Clinton's political rhetoric, the

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countervailing fact is that we are still experiencing untenable rising government expenditures for social purposes at the beginning of the twenty-first century, most directly within the presidency of George W. Bush, a self-styled "compassionate conservative," and his sycophant congressional toadies.
     While liberals today scorn conservatives as heartless, even as conservatives point with dismay to the liberal's failed programs, government keeps getting bigger with the overt assistance of both parties. Cornuelle has an answer: volunteerism, a special brand of private-sector work that competes with and supplants government action or intervention. He shows how it can work and why it can work. Then he actually made it work.
     Cornuelle calls for Americans to apply private-sector business practices to private-sector charitable impulses. His point is that the private sector can displace some of big government and be more effective while doing so. But, for this to happen the private sector has to change how it both thinks and functions in a public venue. It has to practice, when acting altruistically, what it preaches while engaged in business. Cornuelle notes that such considerations as accountability, responsibility, entrepreneurship, competition, graded performance, obtaining results, and living with consequences are equally applicable to charity and business (and most obviously, to government as well). American business is efficient and successful not just because it wants to be, but because it has to be to survive. If, as Cornuelle advocates, business applied its methods to private-sector charitable initiatives everything would change. With measurable results made mandatory private-sector initiatives would become successful to a significant degree. They could reduce the need for and replace government programs and accomplish what everyone would like to see: a truly compassionate system of help for the clearly needy that actually works.
     Cornuelle finds the biggest danger in the fact, already observed by Alexis de Tocqueville, that we become numb to government running our lives in proportion to the extent that we let it do so. Robert Nisbet in Quest for Community (1953) and Bertrand de Jouvenel before him (On Power, Chapter 15) are both critical observers of modern social organization. They each note that when communities erode political power replaces them. And the more government does for us, the more it does to us. Without competition, bureaucrats won't make government more effective or efficient. As monopolists they have no incentive to do so. The most direct example of this maxim is public education

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in America-a monopoly that achieves less and demands more fiscal support every year. This system is the perfect foil for the competition offered through private entrepreneurship.
     Cornuelle, as well, is especially harsh on private foundations that in his view abdicate their responsibility to show how the people themselves can remedy society's failings without more government involvement. The convolution here was and is truly amazing. Instead of understanding where charitable foundations could lead, these organizations simply identify problems, often detailing how they arose and what was happening in society, and then suggest that government fix them! Cornuelle's concomitant dose of scorn is for rubber-stamp boards, full of successful people who do not do their jobs of overseeing, but bow to the "professionals," and allow themselves to be talked down to by staff. They do not assess, they do not demand performance, they do not set policy, and they do not review with a critical eye; they abdicate their jobs, they just do not leave their seats.
     Both in his book and in his personal life Cornuelle took on the burden of proving that the private sector can solve most, if not all, of our public problems. His intention was to show what could be done if the private sector competed with government and didn't just abandon a field when government stepped in. His demonstration vehicle was a private corporation he created called United Student Aid Funds, Inc. He picked a sector of society that needed attention and an area where government was already involved (but doing a poor job) through the federal student loan program. He addressed the relevant issues and then mapped out a solution, which he successfully put into action.
     In its first year USA Funds raised (from private individuals) a few million dollars to lend to students, and signed up 944 banks to administer the loans and 37 colleges that wanted to participate. USA Funds generated 3,000 loans to students that year. This Cornuelle accomplished entirely with private money, talent, and time. By the third year, Cornuelle's operation was in partnership with 5,500 banks in 49 states serving 685 colleges and 68,000 students. USA Funds had but one office, with a small staff, to operate the entire national program. Cornuelle's thoughts and his actualization of those thoughts were the raw material with the potential to start a great movement and are, admittedly, the stuff of few people. Starting smaller, with less grand designs, is still more than realistic. The observers of Cornuelle's follow-through should not be daunted, but inspired.

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     In his book Cornuelle concludes that the private sector's resurgence as a force to solve social ills could reduce and redefine government's role, but only if the private sector's leaders come to see themselves as fundamentally different from the state-and as having a potentially more powerful franchise. The private sector cannot be successful until it both competes with government and decides not to accept government's power as final, or its pull as irresistible. Cornuelle observes, following Richard Weaver, Friedrich von Hayek, William F. Buckley, Jr., and so many others, that

               [a]bove all we need an intellectual revolution before its practical
               counterpart will have a chance.

Since first expressing those views in 1965, we have experienced the beginnings of both revolutions. But we still have far to go, and Cornuelle wants us to persist with intention. He identifies the overpowering force of government, which often stifles private initiative simply because those in the private sector are grateful to be relieved of the burdens of their exertions. But Cornuelle knew and
acted upon the plain fact that government cannot, for too many reasons, effect social good or public welfare as successfully as the private voluntary actions of citizens. Most of all, in combating government's presumptions, its political intrusions, and the force of entrenched bureaucracies Cornuelle saw that

               in the end the only practical way to make a modern state less large was
               to starve it of responsibility.

     Richard Cornuelle acted on his beliefs. His book is a primer on how we can do the same and change both government and America to reclaim them for ourselves.

About the Author
As founder of the Center for Independent Action, Richard Cornuelle is not shy about practicing what he preaches when he calls on the private sector to take action. From humble beginnings as a roustabout in the oil fields of the western U.S., to his post as executive vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Cornuelle participated in all levels of American business and the private non-profit sector

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during the twentieth century. His investigations into the employment of the supposedly unemployable, privately funded low-cost housing, and private urban renewal have led to a rethinking of how the independent sector can reshape the American economic and governmental landscapes.
     Cornuelle was born in 1927, and in the late 1940s was a research assistant to Ludwig von Mises at New York University. He learned from Mises the idea that the economic way of thinking (praxeology) could be applied to areas outside the market economy, to understand the societal forces at work that either lead to or hinder peaceful social cooperation. After leaving New York University, Cornuelle worked in various jobs, including as a Program Officer at the Volker Fund that in the 1950s and early 1960s was instrumental in helping establish the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Political Economy at the University of Virginia, the Journal of Law and Economics at the University of Chicago School of Law, and a lecture series for students that helped produce such books as Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law, and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom (Chapter 25).
     Cornuelle has a continuing presence among those organizations that tackle social opportunities with the idea of displacing less efficient governmental efforts while fostering private initiative. Cornuelle re-published Reclaiming the American Dream in 1993 and in his review of the revised edition, John Chamberlain observes that the welfare state has become entrenched, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan's insignificant attempts and secondary successes in curtailing (much less disassembling) it. But Cornuelle is optimistic about the independent sector-and he may be right. The information age might just reduce both the hodgepodge and the staggering size of government, and social reform may be a logical opportunity to flow from those reductions.
     Cornuelle's own research focused on the role that voluntary associations play in society. He coined the term "the independent sector" to refer to activity that was neither in the market sector nor the public sector. Philanthropic enterprise became the subject to which he devoted his intellectual energies and in so doing he drew inspiration not just from Mises, but also Tocqueville. Cornuelle understands the vital importance of a vibrant independent sector for the functioning of a free society.  It is in the application of its aptitude for and the science of voluntary association and self-governance that a citizenry enables a free society to function and flourish. If the people lose this ability, the free society will be threatened. This is the meaning behind the

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often made statement by Cornuelle to the effect that "while we know much about the free economy, we still know too little about the free society."

Available through:
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