Book Review: Return To Order
Author: John Horvat II
Publisher: York Press
Publication Date: January 2013
For my first TAC book review, I will be looking at a book that is being seriously promoted by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), Return To Order (RTO) by John Horvat II. I was somewhat familiar with the perspective of TFP prior to reading the book, having attended one of their conferences and read some of their basic literature. Horvat acknowledges his indebtedness to Dr. Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira, TFPs founder and primary theoretician who developed a historical narrative of the rise and fall of Christendom in the grand style I have always enjoyed and appreciated. Whereas Oliveira’s work, or at least what I have read of it, was broadly focused, Horvat’s analysis is specifically focused on the United States.
The premise of Part I of RTO is that the cultural and economic crisis of the United States is rooted in a spiritual disorder that the author identifies as “frenetic intemperance”, a willful and energetic disregard for limitation and restraint in virtually all areas of life. Unlike many cultural and economic critics, Horvat does not blame “capitalism” for the development and proliferation of this spiritual disorder. Indeed, Part II of the book asserts that the technological progress and prosperity that capitalism has bestowed upon civilization could have been – and should have been – pursued within the cultural context of Christendom. There is no necessary connection between material progress and spiritual decay.
Horvat is firm in his rejection of socialism as a solution to cultural and economic disorder. Though he puts forward an idealistic view of the (capital S) State that I don’t think will ever be recovered, he does distinguish this ideal from the really-existing state, which is managed and staffed by people who loathe the remnants of Christendom and work ceaselessly to purge them from the society they are building.
I must offer some words of criticism, though I hope they will be taken in the spirit of charity that I intend. Not enough attention was paid to conditions necessary for spiritual disorder to spread in Part I. These are acknowledged only briefly by the author (though it is to his credit that they are mentioned at all), namely the regime of cheap credit and unlimited money made possible through central banking, and in our country, the Federal Reserve. Here is where the analysis of the Austrian school is absolutely indispensable. For while I believe that Hovart is right to identify the spiritual root of disorder, much of the concrete activity that he identifies as socially destructive would have been virtually impossible without aggressive statist intervention into the economy.
What can frenetic intemperance do without the promise of subsidies, regulations on competitors, massive bailouts in case of failure, and unlimited lines of credit? In the end, not much. It is the free market itself that imposes, through the competition for scarce resources, real restraints and limitations on individuals and corporations. It is the activity of the state that creates an illusion of limitless wealth and thereby causes the sort of reckless and destructive behavior rightly condemned in RTO.
Also subjected to withering attack in RTO is what I believe to be a misunderstood “individualism”, and here is where the analysis does find certain commonalities with anti-capitalist critiques of modern society. The kind of “individualism” attacked in RTO, and for that matter, by Distributists, the Catholic left, and even certain Papal encyclicals doesn’t really exist. To quote Murray Rothbard:
Myth #1 Libertarians believe that each individual is an isolated, hermetically sealed atom, acting in a vacuum without influencing each other.
This is a common charge, but a highly puzzling one. In a lifetime of reading libertarian and classical liberal literature, I have not come across a single theorist or writer who holds anything like this position. The only possible exception is the fanatical Max Stirner… Apart from Stirner, however, there is no body of opinion even remotely resembling this common indictment.
There is also a critique of “self-interest”, and a desire that it should be replaced with virtue. But there is always a paradox involved here; is it not in one’s self-interest to be virtuous? Of course it is. It is one’s long-term, ultimate self-interest. So, for that matter, is going to heaven; even Christ exhorts in terms of individual rewards and punishments.
It is understandable why Christians have a natural aversion to arguing the benefits of self-interest, but it is really a prejudice that we must confront. The pursuit of self-interest can be selfish, without a doubt. It can become cold, mechanical, and heartless. But in a free market structured by the rule of law, which Horvat and TFP embrace, the pursuit of self-interest also serves the interests of others. It serves the immediate interests of those one enters into mutually agreeable exchanges with, and it serves the long-term interests of society by facilitating the creation of wealth. No individual’s self-interest is satisfied in a free market unless someone else’s needs have been met.
I am almost uncomfortable raising these points since I believe that the “organic society” proposed by Horvat would, for the most part, be a free society that recognized all of this at least implicitly. In Part II of RTO we find robust arguments for subsidiarity and a localism that is, quite refreshingly, not isolationist and backward, but rather dynamic and integrated, fully embracing modern technology and commerce. The organic society is what arises from the relationships and institutions that man’s nature calls him to, as opposed to the artificial and mechanical collectivist amalgamations and perpetually-outraged identity groupings encouraged and fashioned by the modern secular state.
There are also some excellent proposals. In his analysis of medieval currency, Horvat essentially proposes what Austrian economists such as F.A. Hayek proposed, a system of competing local currencies that would maintain economic harmony and balance. I think this is a remarkable idea, and in fact a pre-requisite to any real and serious challenge that a coalition of local governments might post to a tyrannical federal government. So I wish to emphasize that I really have no objection whatsoever to the key proposal of Horvat’s, which is that the medieval way of thought can be reapplied to modern circumstances.