Richard Cornuelle (1927-2011): With Gratitude and Remembrance

Posted on April 28, 2011 by


Richard Cornuelle passed away April 26.  Blessedly, his passing was quiet.  And with his passing a man who was vitally important in my own life, and ultimately responsible for this journal, has left for other things.  I miss him deeply. And I believe our community would do well to remember him.

Around ten years ago I had largely given up interest in working within the classical liberal and Austrian conceptual world.  My book applying F. A. Hayek’s analysis to democracy had been published, the first such use of Hayek’s thought to my awareness, and was not reviewed by a single classical liberal or libertarian publication.  Not one.  Despite my having been on the “Academic Advisory Board “ of one journal, one where another member offered to review it, no review appeared there or anywhere else and the book sank into oblivion uncommented on.  It had become painfully clear to me that this framework of thought was largely dead intellectually, captured by a rigid ideology whose elite was completely uninterested in anything but the utterly predictable, except for a little imaginative work on its margins.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, Dick Cornuelle began a series of annual meetings on philanthropy, and I was invited to participate.  Initially I went out of curiosity as it was years since I had been invited to any scholarly meetings dealing with Hayekian or Austrian themes.

Attending was a intellectually transforming event for me.  Here was a man, and also some other people whom he had gathered together, who were interested in considering new questions and new insights.  Here was intellectual life.  Not everyone attending was interested in this way, but many were.

My thinking focused again on Hayek and the phenomena of emergence, and in the process it deepened by struggling with the issues Dick wanted discussed.  Dick was more than an enabler of others, important as that was, he was also a creative thinker himself.  His books explored not the market, but rather the independent sector, that area of social life that was not dominated by government nor by profit maximizing enterprises.  His Reclaiming the American Dream was an eye opener when I read it long ago, but it led to little follow-through because it did not fit neatly within the market good/government bad/all else irrelevant bias that prevailed.  But he kept at it.  And I am one of those deeply grateful he did so.

Everything I have written or will write about civil society owes an immense debt to Dick Cornuelle, and in my writings it is civil society, and not the market, that is the locus of freedom and creativity.  So this is no small thing.

So were the conferences we had on emergent order, of which our fourth and with Dick gone likely our last, taking place this fall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  These conferences gave us a chance to begin reaching outside the inbred Austrian intellectual ghetto, and bring in other scholars interested in emergent order in society, enriching our thinking with their insights, and hopefully theirs with ours.

The existence of this journal is another very tangible result.  Its origins were in our first conference.

But Dick Cornuelle was far more to me than an intellectual entrepreneur.  He was an exceptionally kind and decent man.  Every encounter I had with him was with a sharp but compassionate human being, one who genuinely believed that a free society needed to address the full scope of human values, and not just what “the market” would reward, and who took those issues seriously because he lived them himself in his own life.

In my judgment Dick Cornuelle was a great man, far greater than some with far more public reputations.  The community of scholars interested in emergence, and in how Hayek’s work deepens our understanding of it, has lost an important supporter.  But from my personal perspective we have also lost a wonderful human being, a man for whom I am far far richer in intangible wealth for having known.

May your spirit soar, Dick.

Another beautiful statement about Dick is at Conversations on Philanthropy.