The following is extracted from Cornuelle’s classic book Reclaiming the American Dream, published in 1965.
For a long time it seemed that the free society and the good society could be realized together in America. This, I think, was the American dream. And for a hundred years and more, it worked.
We Americans created as wide a variety of private institutions to make our society good as we did to make it free.
We wanted, from the beginning, a free society, free in the sense that every man was his own supervisor and the architect of his own ambitions. So our founders took pains to design a government with limited power, and then carefully scattered the forces which could control it.
We wanted as well, with equal fervor, a good society—a humane, responsible society in which helping hands reached out to people in honest distress, in which common needs were met freely and fully. In pursuit of this ambition, Americans used remarkable imagination. We created a much wider variety of new institutions for this purpose than we built to insure political freedom. As a frontier people, accustomed to interdependence, we developed a genius for solving common problems. People joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches, opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, to help the poor. To see a need was, more often than not, to promote a scheme to meet it better than had ever been done before.
The American dream was coming true. Each part of it supported another part. We were free because we limited the power of government. We prospered because we were free. We built a good society because our prosperity yielded surplus energy which we put directly to work to meet human needs. Thus, we didn’t need much government, and because we didn’t, we stayed uniquely free. A sort of supportive circle, or spiral, was working for us.
The part of the system least understood, then as now, was the network of non-governmental institutions which served public needs. They did not leave an easy trace for historians to follow. They did not depend on noisy political debate for approval, nor did civil servants have to keep very detailed records of what they did. We will look into the special character of these institutions in the next chapter, but for the moment notice only that they played a significant role. They were not limited to Christmas-basket charity. They took on almost any public job and so became the principal way Americans got things done.
For years the leading colleges and universities were created by the churches. Hospitals began in a variety of ways, and in the era before the Civil War, under Clara Barton’s leadership, they blossomed into today’s major system of independent institutions. Many of our giant commercial firms, notably in insurance and mutual savings, grew out of early self-help organizations.
Urgent problems filled the agenda of public business in early America. Citizens, acting on their own, took the heavy load. Local and state government took most of what was left. We rarely needed the federal government, a distant thing to the frontiersman. We limited government, not only because people knew its limitations and wanted it limited, but because we left little for it to do. . . .
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But a new country brought radical changes in the nature of our public problems. . . . [Today] the private citizen has come to feel that technical progress creates public problems faster than it solves them—so many that only government seems big enough to work on them. Professor John K. Galbraith has put this conventional belief into a sort of litany “. . . functions accrue to the state because, as a purely technical matter, there is no alternative to public management.”
We limited government, not only because people knew its limitations and wanted it limited, but because we left little for it to do.
This attitude was born out of the Depression. Black Friday 1929 struck down American confidence. . . . That confidence has never been completely restored. Our habit of sending difficult problems to Washington quickly became almost a reflex. A one-way flow of responsibility to the federal government, begun by Depression remedies, has continued and gained speed. In less than 30 years the government nearly cornered the market for new public responsibility.
This rather sudden disappearance of any evident alternative to government action profoundly affected our national life. It broke the spiral I referred to earlier. . . . Humanity and freedom seem now to be in permanent conflict. . . .
We suddenly turned most of our attention to Washington. In so doing, we unconsciously turned our backs on the tradition of non-governmental action which had held our dream together for 150 years. We forgot this tradition, dropped it from our conversation, almost as if it had never existed.
It quickly became fashionable to speak of American life in terms of only two “sectors”: the public sector, which is a prejudicial euphemism for government, and the private sector, which is profit-seeking commerce. We leave out the third sector in our national life, the one which is neither governmental nor commercial. We ignore the institutions which once played such a decisive part in the society’s vibrant growth. By assuming a major role in meeting public needs, thus leaving less to government, the third sector once made it possible for us to build a humane society and a free society together.
The important third force deserves a name. It is a distinct, identifiable part of American life, not just a misty area between commerce and government. I have come to call it “the independent sector.” After some years of work among the people and organizations operating in this sector, no other word seems to express its unique, intrepid character as well as the word independent. . . .
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When you push back the curtain that has strangely hidden the independent sector from the public eye, one surprise follows another. You notice dozens of agencies that serve you daily. The sector’s dimensions are fantastic, its raw strength awesome. . . .
Recently, we unconsciously turned our backs on the tradition of non-governmental action which had held our dream together for 150 years.
Sometimes the independent impulse shows itself in humble, simple ways, as when our new neighbors brought a pot of soup and offered to sit with the baby when we moved into our tract house in San Mateo.
Sometimes it shows itself boldly and professionally, as when the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis set out to conquer polio with dimes—and did it.
Sometimes the independent sector deals with small pleasures, as when my wife’s Garden Guild attends to the floral decorations at our church.
But often it deals with grave problems, as when Stanford Research Institute designs weapons system and strategy on which our defense depends.
Sometimes independent action is impulsive, as when thousands of Americans mailed $600,000 to Dallas Patrolman J. D. Tippit’s grief-stricken wife and $78,000 to the assassin’s stunned young widow. But often it is highly systematic, as when the Ford Foundation coaches colleges and universities in the complexities of long-range capital planning.
Sometimes the independent sector does menial, dirty work, as when volunteer hospital aides empty the bedpans and bandage the oozing sores of patients in hospitals all across the country. But often it does what is most gracious and aesthetic, as when the Guggenheim family builds a magnificent museum or citizens in Pittsburgh sponsor the display of the work of their local artists in the foyers of business and public places. . . .
Sometimes independent action is highly individual. Leo Seligman of Memphis, who learned about prison life the hard way in a Nazi concentration camp, has met 786 parolees at prison gates in Tennessee with bus fare, lunch, and a helping hand. But it is often highly organized. The Boy Scouts can tell you to the penny how much it takes to set up a troop.
Independent action is sometimes almost invisible. Did you know more private than public land is available free for camping? (And California’s Redwood Association has launched a program among lumbermen to provide still more public camp sites on private land.) Sometimes the independent sector screams for attention, as when mass media annually harangue us to contribute to United Fund campaigns.
The idea that philanthropic competition with government is illegitimate, disruptive, divisive, unproductive, and perhaps immoral is a weird public myth.
Independent action is sometimes frivolous, as when groups are organized for treks in classic cars or to learn to be amateur clowns. But it is sometimes in deadly earnest, as when the business leaders of Dallas jointly acted to integrate the schools and privately owned public facilities of their city.
Sometimes the independent sector provides our luxuries. Most of our opera houses are independent institutions, and independent symphonies provide cultural leaven in more than 1,200 American communities. Sometimes it provides desperate necessities, as when Salvation Army centers give a meal to men who would otherwise sleep hungry in the street.
Sometimes independent action is inane, as when a group sought to make Alcatraz a museum of horrors, its cells permanently occupied by wax replicas of the prison’s famous inmates. But sometimes it is forward-looking and ingenious, as when the Upjohn Foundation combined with Systems Development Corporation to work out a national system of finding and communicating job opportunities to the jobless.
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The independent sector is a kaleidoscope of human action. It takes a thousand forms and works in a million ways. And a tremendous raw strength undergirds its rich variety. Welded into our national life at every level, it functions at any moment when a person or group acts directly to serve others. The independent sector is, to begin with, [millions of] individuals in [millions of] families—who do not limit their lives to pay-earning work (the personal commercial sector) or occasional trips to the voting booth (the personal government sector). We are the richest, best educated, most ingenious people in the history of the world. . . . We channel much of this wealth—plus talent and energy not counted by the GNP figures—through the independent sector. . . .
Americans have developed a rich variety of organizations through which they arrange their time, energy, and ingenuity for public service. First of all, our churches . . . 320,000 churches with 118 million members. . . . In addition, a hundred thousand voluntary welfare groups, and no one knows how many informal neighborhood, college, and community groups, have organized to tutor underprivileged children or plan to eliminate slums, discuss Great Books. [Thousands of] private foundations . . . finance activities ranging from the intensive study of the habits of orangutans to regional economic development in poor nations.
Hundreds of fraternal and service organizations . . . not only march in parades but also send needy youngsters to college. . . . There are nearly 3,500 independent hospitals, and thousands more independent nursing homes. There are 1,357 private colleges and universities enrolling 1.7 million students, and more than 17,000 private schools. . . .
The independent sector is a kaleidoscope of human action. It takes a thousand forms and works in a million ways. And a tremendous raw strength undergirds its rich variety.
The independent sector has the power to do these formidable things. But, curiously, as its strength has increased we have given it less and less to do, and assigned more and more common tasks to government. . . .
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The independent sector has a natural competitor: government. Both sectors operate in the same industry: public service and welfare. Sometimes, over the years, leaders on each side have sensed their competitive positions and built a fascinating record of both creative competition and deliberate collusion. The quality of life in the U.S. now depends largely on the revival of a lively competition between these two natural contenders for public responsibility. The struggle would enhance the effectiveness of both.
The weak sister is the independent sector. . . . The very idea of competition with government is, by a weird public myth, thought to be illegitimate, disruptive, divisive, unproductive, and perhaps immoral. The result is roughly analogous to what would have happened had Mr. Ford decided one day that it would be more gentlemanly to build just a few cars for his friends and encourage Mr. Sloan, unchallenged by Ford’s genius, to go after the big market. The market in cars, like today’s market in public services, would have offered a poorer product, less choice.
The idea that competition with government is pernicious came along fairly recently. Just fifty years ago, the Rockefeller foundation and the Carnegie Corporation together spent twice as much for education and social services as did the entire federal government. Voluntary agencies took the lion’s share of public responsibility. The issue of the day was the reverse of the present: Should the government dare compete with the big boys in the independent sector. . . .
[Today,] many believe that the independent sector’s main function is to assist the government in its effort to take more responsibility, often by providing pilot projects and press agentry. Most of our great national health and welfare groups have registered as Washington lobbyists, and they argue consistently for bigger government. . . .
Thus the independent sector now mainly promotes its government competitor. The test of a good citizen is not that he takes responsibility, but that he successfully sends it to Washington. . . . This accidental perversion of the independent sector’s competitive role has far-reaching consequences. For, far from being illegitimate, lively competition with government is essential if our democratic institutions are to work sensibly. . . .
The foundation is an instrument forged by citizens who transfer profit from the commercial sector and put it directly to work as risk capital for the general betterment of the society.
The government doesn’t ignore public opinion because the people who run it are naturally perverse. It isn’t wasteful because it is manned by wasteful people. . . . Without competition, the bureaucracy can’t make government efficient or even sensibly decide what it needs to do. Nor can the situation be magically improved. We know from experience that no unitary social institution can reform itself. Innovation painfully disrupts its way of life. Reform comes only through competitive outsiders who force steady, efficient adjustment to changing situations.
Independent sector leaders genially speak of complementing government, not competing with it—as if monopoly were good and competition destructive—thus unwittingly conspiring against the public interest. Without having to match the effort of one outfit against another, neither an independent nor a governmental institution can operate efficiently. Like government, independent institutions are ineffective largely because they no longer compete.
The independent sector will grow strong again when its leaders realize that its unique indispensable natural role in America is to compete with government. It must be as eager as government to take on new public problems. It must be imaginative, vigorous, persistent. Independent groups must line up in Washington, not begging for help but looking for bigger jobs to do. . . .
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The true development of the foundation will come when it accepts the discipline of competition with government and thus is forced to bold innovation. . . . This competitive task takes on new urgency as the government moves relentlessly to finish off its already battered competitors. The independent sector will be cut back further, perhaps abolished, if it fails to compete aggressively in public service. . . .
To say that private foundations exist only on the sufferance of government is to promote the untenable premise that government is the whole society, that the citizen and all his institutions are creatures of the state, not the other way around.
Already in America, government is tightening its grip on the independent sector. It is challenging the tax-exempt status of foundations, making new efforts to “regulate” almost all private groups. An independent sector “regulated” by its competition has, at best, an uphill fight on its hands.
Without a sure sense of what they should do, foundations themselves have become more and more vulnerable to this political attack. The government is eyeing foundation treasuries hungrily. Every year the pressures mount for closer government control. . . . The logic of the foundation-busters is formidable. Foundations, they argue, have money because they don’t pay taxes. So, it is said, they are really spending tax money. Officials elected by all the people should control tax money, this argument says, not foundation trustees who elect each other. . . .
But the foundation is more than a mechanical alternative to government action—and far more than an arm of the welfare state suitable only to test out and lobby for new federal programs. The foundation is an instrument forged by citizens who transfer profit from the commercial sector and put it directly to work as risk capital for the general betterment of the society. To say or imply that the foundation exists only on the sufferance of government is to reason from the premise that government is the whole society. Here is a special version of the untenable notion that the citizen and all his institutions are creatures of the state, not the other way around. The government has no natural “burden,” no divine franchise on public responsibility. It simply does the chores we leave for it to do.
Such language seems awkward in a society accustomed to think of responsibility as something that should be promptly bundled off to Washington, not proudly borne at home. But the right to take social responsibility is an essential part of the human enterprise, and the private foundation an essential resource. It is a distinctive means to build a society in which each individual serves to the limit of his ability and concern.