All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1994

A Reviewers Notebook: Reclaiming the American Dream

Richard Cornuelle, author of Reclaiming The American Dream, subtitled, The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J., 1993, 258 pages, $19.95 paperback), is the man who restored Alexis de Tocqueville to his rightful place in American history.

Cornuelle had worked as a young man for Garet Garrett. A good observer, he had noticed that it had become fashionable to speak of American life in terms of only two sectors: the public, a euphemism for government; and the private, or commercial sector. The division seemed somehow wrong. Cornuelle discovered the inadequacy of the two-part division by reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which the Frenchman marveled about our tendency to handle public business through associations that had no connections with the state. Americans founded associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the Antipodes, and to establish hospitals and schools.

The omission of the independent sector had resulted in a tendency to shuffle off work onto government. It ignored the Kiwanis, Rotary, Civitan, and Lions clubs, as well as the Chambers of Commerce, and some 3,500 independent private hospitals. “There were,” so Cornuelle observed, “1,357 private colleges and universities, and enrollments in them went up faster than in the public schools.”

There is something of a contradiction in Cornuelle’s lament that conservatives failed to have programs or that liberals had some of the programs that they did sponsor. Cornuelle should be happy that the American dream worked for a hundred years. Our founders had taken pains to design a government with limited powers. Sometimes, this power resulted in a crazy intensity decorating the walls of Alcatraz Prison or in the frivolity of groups organized for treks in classic cars, or even in learning to be clowns. But the independent sector, as Cornuelle put it, is a kaleidoscope of human action, which takes a thousand forms. Sometimes the driving power of the independent sector may seem weak, but the demand to serve is none the less a compelling drive. “We see the services and their many alloys,” says Cornuelle, who is satisfied to observe that “145,000,000 Americans have some form of health insurance.”

Cornuelle sends me a copy of his revised book with the remark that, “Here it comes again.” (Reclaiming The American Dream was originally published in 1965.) He says in his afterword that the Reagan mission was not to repeal the welfare state but to preserve it and to accept debt or inflation for taxation.

This was all true enough for the moment, but movements have been created by Cornuelle and others that must lead eventually to less dependence on welfare. “There is,” says Cornuelle, “a sprawling politically invincible middle class, the members of which believe they could be satisfied by the free market.” That is an optimistic note. It doesn’t entirely satisfy Cornuelle. And I can see his point. We have a long way to go before reaching a totally free market. The difficulty we face is dealing with the ruined condition left us by the government process.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.