Book Review: Return To Order

Return to Order

Title: Return To Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society

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.

 

21 Responses to Book Review: Return To Order

  • Bonchamps says:

    He does cite MacIntyre. But since I haven’t read MacIntyre and only know of his ideas through second-hand sources, I can’t say whether or not he is in the same vein of thought. It seems like it. They both see the importance of a shared culture, a cultural/moral consensus. But I’ll leave it to others to point out whether or not there is significant agreement.

  • JL says:

    Thanks. This looks like a book I’ll add to the list. Your point about sectarian strife is well-taken, but I can’t help think there are compelling arguments to be made for alternatives to liberalism, especially from a Catholic perspective. I just started reading Marc Guerra’s “Christians as Political Animals: Taking the Measure of Modernity and Modern Democracy” and I am interested to see what types of conclusions he draws. Additionally, have you read any James V. Schall? He appears to be the preeminent American Catholic political philosopher of the last century. Definitely hoping to get my hands on his primer, “Roman Catholic Political Philosopher.”

  • JL says:

    “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.”

    I agree with you here, and I think is what you meant, in a way, when you said capitalism could be perfectly compatible with distributism. And I agree– put it must rest upon the proper philosophical foundation, and I’m not sure we have that. There is a difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of Happiness, is there not?

  • Art Deco says:

    Horvat acknowledges his indebtedness to Dr. Plínio Corrêa de Oliveira

    If he can make any sense at all of Revolution and Counter-Revolution, he is a great deal smarter than I will ever be. Paul Zummo, can you comment?

    Just an aside, Sandra Miesel has in the past issued very severe warnings about Tradition, Family, and Property (“a Rad-Trad cult”). I think I would be very cautious about having any dealings with them.

  • Art Deco says:

    Dr. Correa was the founder of TFP. The organization and the literature are part of the same nexus

    I do not doubt they defend many good things. Just saying. Sandra Miesel appears to have retired for the most part, but she was always a knowledgeable and authoritative observer of the Catholic scene. I would not disregard her opinion.

  • Art Deco says:

    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

    The currency is not a problem.

  • Jon says:

    I think we have to realize something. More important than any political goals is the kind of people we are right now. While all kinds of models exist, they are only as good as the population. In order for any political arrangement to work successfully, people need to be mature and virtuous. This goes for varieties of capitalism, socialism, distributism, and so on.

    It was right for the author to point out that spiritual decay precedes economic, political and all other problems. If the soul of a people is gone, anything we do is mere patchwork. Oswald Spengler, who was not Christian as far as we know, recognized the patterns that ensue once the cultural/religious phase is through. Government is left with the task of management or how to maintain order. He seemed to think, therefore, that the future belongs to socialism. Perhaps they didn’t really lose in 1989-91. While Toynbee and others have held out the possibility of revival through religion, Spengler’s prophecied second-religiousness is as decadent as the oriental cults of Rome’s decline.

  • Bonchamps says:

    “In order for any political arrangement to work successfully, people need to be mature and virtuous.”

    Except for political arrangements that take into account, during their construction, that people are often not virtuous. That is precisely what Madison was up to in Federalist 51.

    This is where I part ways with a number of Catholic political idealists. I don’t have a problem with this. I consider myself a realist when it comes to behavior, not an idealist. I begin with how things are, not how they should be.

  • Jon says:

    Yes, the realist way says we all, leaders and people, are self-interested and prone to corruption. Therefore contstruct a system with checks on everyone. Limit citizens and government, I suppose?

  • JL says:

    This is good stuff.

    Bonchamps, and I ask this not derisively at all, but what do you think of Madison’s/Burke’s/Tocqueville’s apparent desire for something like an aristocracy, or a virtuous ruling class? It certainly sounds idealist in nature, but I think there are huge problems with a meritocracy and what Tocquville called “the absence of heroic deeds from public life.” If one earned everything they have on an allegedly equal playing field, then what obligation do they have to help out those less fortunate?

    Also, with regards to idealism, I don’t think it’s the case that distributionists, etc believe that all men are always virtuous, they simply believe that society/govt should be conceived in a way so as to encourage the virtues to flourish. As you correctly identified, it needs a MacIntyrian “moral consensus.” I know you recognize the benefits of pluralism, and I don’t contest that they don’t exist, but I’ll repeat it again: there is a difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of Happiness, and the latter seems much more conducive to promoting a society where virtuous living is celebrated and sought.

  • Jon says:

    With democracy comes an automatic leveling in things. I think C. S. Lewis decried that. It’s a price you pay for the absence of an aristocracy. Everything has a tendency to assume banality, whether its education, the arts, entertainment, literacy, or whatever.

  • Bonchamps says:

    Jon,

    More or less. Separation of powers, checks and balances, etc.

    JL,

    Horvat discusses the need for a self-sacrificing elite in RTO. Even Ludwig von Mises noted the importance of such an elite.

    I’m not sure the manner in which one earns wealth has anything to do with one’s obligation to use it charitably. The fact of the matter, though, is that by using their wealth as capital, the bourgeois elite do help the less fortunate by providing jobs and products for mass consumption at ever-lower prices.

    I will also be the first to acknowledge that the same elite is often in favor of protectionist and interventionist measures to secure their economic position. This is why a laissez-faire policy is best. Far from hurting the poor, it checks the ambitions of the economic elite, who have to compete with fresh and innovative entrepreneurship (prospective elites, you might say) to remain viable. In this economic battle, the consumer of poor and average means is the real winner. Let ambition check ambition, as Madison argued.

    “Also, with regards to idealism, I don’t think it’s the case that distributionists, etc believe that all men are always virtuous, they simply believe that society/govt should be conceived in a way so as to encourage the virtues to flourish.”

    I understand this. I know they don’t think that men are always virtuous. The idealism has more to do with the notion that this condition can be changed. I don’t believe it can.

    “As you correctly identified, it needs a MacIntyrian “moral consensus.””

    If I wanted to write a 5,000 word review of RTO as opposed to a 1200+ word review, I could have critiqued the idea that a moral consensus ever produced a society of solidly virtuous people. What the moral consensus provided were virtues that were commonly acknowledged and striven for, not necessarily lived and practiced. That situation is superior to the one we have now, undoubtedly, but there is a risk of romanticizing and idealizing the past as well as the present.

    I think the best we can hope for are pockets of virtue and sanity, most of which will be temporary.

  • Vincent A. Lewis says:

    I do not know who Sandra Miesel is. However, if you want to know what the American TFP, you should check their website at http://www.tfp.org/. We need to learn what the Catholic worldview is and how to implement it. I’m fairly well convinced that the idea of the US are not to be adopted as the Catholic World view. The First Amendment leads to one of two conclusions. First, all religious beliefs are of equal value. In other words, the founders founded the US on the principals of the religion of free masonry or naturalism. Second, the US rejects the social reign of Christ. I’m of the opinion that secularism is the unofficial official religion of the US.

  • Bonchamps says:

    Vincent,

    With regard to this:

    “The First Amendment leads to one of two conclusions. First, all religious beliefs are of equal value. In other words, the founders founded the US on the principals of the religion of free masonry or naturalism. Second, the US rejects the social reign of Christ. I’m of the opinion that secularism is the unofficial official religion of the US.”

    I disagree with the first point. The 1st amendment does not imply that all religious beliefs are of equal value. It doesn’t require anyone to believe it either. The purpose of the 1st amendment is to prevent the establishment of a state religion along the lines of the Church of England. Such national churches are antithetical to Catholicism, wherein religious jurisdiction lies with the pope alone.

    The founders could have gone the route of officially persecuting Catholicism based upon the common Anglo assumption that Catholic loyalty to the Papacy would undermine the state. They refrained form this – I believe – because they correctly understood that pledging obedience to a religious authority higher than the state was not a vice, but a virtue.

    Many of the founders themselves may have believed that one religion is as good as another, or at least, one Christian denomination. But ultimately they were seeking to avoid the kind of sectarian strife that had ripped apart a mostly Protestant Britain in the 17th century.

    Finally on this point, the 1st amendment does NOT prohibit the individual states from establishing churches! It only prohibits the federal government. At this point we would never be able to have a state church, but they existed into the 1830s.

    As for the second point, yes. I agree. Americans reject the social reign of Christ.

  • JL says:

    “Finally on this point, the 1st amendment does NOT prohibit the individual states from establishing churches! It only prohibits the federal government. At this point we would never be able to have a state church, but they existed into the 1830s.”

    Yes, Connecticut was a confessional state until that point, the last to go. Bonchamps, do you know if there’s any legal precedent that would currently prevent a state from confessing a state religion?

  • Bonchamps says:

    JL,

    I think the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment may prevent it. I say “may” because I don’t know for certain. State recognition of a church does not necessarily mean that all other churches/confessions are outlawed or persecuted.

    As a rule, Catholics must strive for a confessional state when and where they can. I do not agree with Dignitatis Humane’s proclamation of religious liberty as a “human right.” (if it is, the Church was ignorant of and suppressing a “human right” for nearly 2000 years – a scandalous and absurd proposition, in my view)

    I agree with Pope Leo XIII’s pragmatic view that what cannot be changed must be tolerated. The 1st amendment is fine, because the FEDERAL government doesn’t need to be religious. But in a majority Catholic state, Catholics would have the obligation to establish a confessional regime (one operating on republican principles per the Constitution, which guarantees a republican form of government to the states).

    It was precisely because of this requirement that John Courtney Murray wrote Dignitatis Humane. He acknowledged it as a problem and DH was his solution. I feel no obligation to agree with him.

  • JL says:

    “Even Ludwig von Mises noted the importance of such an elite.”
    But how does von Mises envision such an institution remaining publicly viable? In a liberal society, it seems like it needs structural support.

    “I’m not sure the manner in which one earns wealth has anything to do with one’s obligation to use it charitably.”

    Not just wealth, but power, influence, etc. I know there is a tendency to idealize the past (just as other people have a tendency to vilify it, for similar reasons), but perhaps arbitrariness of membership in the nobility and aristocracy was a positive. In other words, it wasn’t something you earned by your own effort, but something you were born into, inheriting the roles and obligations that went along with it. (obviously negatives here, not denying that) If there’s a down-side to meritocracy, it’s that it can justify social Darwinism: since everyone has a chance to pull themselves up, the strong will and the weak won’t. The problem is that equality of opportunity doesn’t really exist. Yes, everyone has to play by the rules, but people are given clear advantages based on birth and family. But because we’re so convinced we’ve “earned” everything solely through our own labors, it’s easy to look at others and say “they could fix their situation if they just tried harder!” So yes, I agree with you that one’s charitable obligation exists no matter how they obtained their status, but I also think a meritocracy has a tendency to render inequalities as just, and therefore decrease the perception that one ought to do anything to alleviate the misfortune of another.

    “If I wanted to write a 5,000 word review of RTO as opposed to a 1200+ word review, I could have critiqued the idea that a moral consensus ever produced a society of solidly virtuous people. What the moral consensus provided were virtues that were commonly acknowledged and striven for, not necessarily lived and practiced. That situation is superior to the one we have now, undoubtedly, but there is a risk of romanticizing and idealizing the past as well as the present.
    I think the best we can hope for are pockets of virtue and sanity, most of which will be temporary.”

    I respect your position immensely. You recognize the shortcomings of our present arrangement, but also call for prudent and realistic action within the system as it is. I am, however, just a bit more optimistic that a better concept of society (not an ideal one, just a better one) is attainable. MacIntyre seems to suggest that it will only come about in the ashes of the current one, a scenario we shouldn’t hope for, but one in which we should be ready to act if it comes. Til then, I’ll concern myself with these “pockets of virtue and sanity” you mention. As I said before, I do think the American model, with a proper federalist interpretation, could allow for a state to be a sort of mini-republic that is conducive to this end…so I remain hopefully that everything won’t have to be blown up to achieve something a little less transient than temporary pockets. But it looks pretty bleak as of now…

  • JL says:

    I haven’t read Murray, but through the secondary sources that mention him, it seems he was a little too eager to accommodate the liberal project as not merely tolerable, but the very embodiment of Catholic political thought. Sounds like Orestes Brownson, who I also need to, but haven’t read.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .