Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society
By John Horvat II
(York Press, 400 pages, $21.95)
America has been on a “never-ending party cruise” for decades, according to John Horvat II, and the economic crash of 2008 was evidence that the hedonistic pursuit of consumer thrills cannot continue indefinitely. In this sense, our $17 trillion-dollar national debt stands as an indictment not merely of our federal government, but of the irresponsible attitudes of the American people, who have likewise piled up debt to fund their “unsustainable” lifestyles.
“Frenetic intemperance” is Horvat’s striking phrase for this problem, which is the central focus of his new book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society. The book has drawn praise from authorities both spiritual and secular, ranging from professors to bankers to archbishops. Former Attorney General Ed Meese has praised Horvat’s “analysis of how the United States has departed from the spiritual, cultural and economic precepts that supported the founding and the early history of our republic.” And, while many libertarians balk at the intrusion of Christian morality in discussions of economics, Return to Order comes with a foreword by Professor Harry C. Veryser, an adherent of the free-market Austrian school of economics, as well as the endorsement of Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.
“I hold that our economy is frenzied and out of balance,” Horvat explained in a telephone interview last week. “You can’t legislate it into balance or regulate it into balance. The only real way is a return to a moral order.”
Debt-driven speculative bubbles, such as the one in housing that collapsed in 2008, are merely the superficial evidence of a much deeper problem that extends far beyond Wall Street. The core issue is one of morality, according to Horvat, who defines frenetic intemperance as “an explosive expansion of human desires beyond traditional and moral bounds,” causing many people “to resent the very idea of restraint” and to reject “the spiritual, religious, moral and cultural values that normally serve to order and temper economic activity.”
Suffice it to say that this isn’t your typical economic policy book. Horvat describes it as “more of a cultural issue than a policy position or political platform.”
Return to Order observes that “many economists work on the premise that modern economy assumes an extreme individualism,” a philosophy that has the effect of undermining the restraints and social bonds of faith, family, and community. The decline of these “intermediary associations” — the building blocks of traditional society that Edmund Burke called “little platoons” — is falsely portrayed as “liberating” individuals, Horvat explains, but actually has quite the opposite effect. “No longer having tradition, community, or social mores to sanction his judgments or measure his achievements, the self-made man turns to conformity with those similar ‘atoms’ around him for validation,” Horvat writes, citing such sources as economist Wilhelm Röpke and sociologist David Reisman in his analysis. “With few mediating social structures, the individualist…suffers himself to join the anonymous masses by allowing himself to be directed by mass media, mass culture, mass markets — or even big government. In promising individualism, modernity paradoxically delivers its own stifling brand of collectivism.”
The paradox by which extreme individualism actually fosters collectivism is most apparent in the decline of the family, which is “the heart and soul of economy,” in Horvat’s description: “There can be no organic social order without this most basic unit of society.…No social body establishes ties of solidarity that so restrain man’s intemperance and prevents him from becoming part of the masses. No other influence extends itself farther throughout society.” If that’s not enough to make Horvat a target of the radical Left, consider that Return to Order includes such chapter headings as “A True Idea of the Christian State.” Horvat’s traditionalism is not merely conservative and Christian, but also explicitly Catholic, closing with a reference to “Our Lady of Fatima.”
Horvat developed this perspective under the influence of the late Brazilian intellectual Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, a devout Catholic and staunch anti-Communist who in the 1980s formed the American Studies Commission of the Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP). Now the head of the American TFP, Horvat observes how “the frenzied development of technology has speeded up everything,” encouraging many of the destructive forces that have undermined tradition. Yet defenders of tradition can also leverage the same technology, and the web site for Return to Order notes that the book has already sold more than 18,000 copies. The potential market may be much larger. There are nearly 80 million Catholics in the United States, and certainly many of them need to hear the kind of conservative message Horvat is promoting. In 2012, exit polls indicated that a majority of Catholics voted to re-elect President Obama, whose policies are diametrically opposed to the pro-life, pro-family values traditionally associated with Catholicism.
Is there is any hope of ending the unsustainable party cruise of “frenetic intemperance”? Given how far America has drifted off course, it may take a miracle. I’m not Catholic myself, but wouldn’t mind any help Our Lady of Fatima might care to give.