When Ratzinger and Hayek Met

Since Pope Benedict XVI’s death on New Year’s Eve, much has naturally been written about his legacy. Much more will certainly be written about him in the coming decades and centuries. For he, Joseph Ratzinger, was truly a prophet of our time, a magisterial voice, and one of the greatest minds of the last centuries.

What is less known about him is an encounter he had with another great mind of the twentieth century, the 1974 Nobel Prize laureate Friedrich August von Hayek in a little-known debate at the Salzburger Humanismusgespräche, the Humanities Discussions of Salzburg, in December 1976. At first sight, it seems inconceivable how Ratzinger and Hayek would have much to say to each other. Yet, here at the Salzburg debates—graciously pointed out to me by a dear friend from Vienna—these two men, the then 77-year-old Hayek and the then 49-year-young Ratzinger, met and debated, and, indeed, seemed to get along rather well.

The topic of the debate was the role and understanding of the intellectual in our world. Are intellectuals too overconfident in their ability to conceive new ideas of purported progress? Is it finally time to say goodbye to utopian ideas? Rather unsurprisingly, considering his ferocious attacks on the pretense of knowledge of intellectuals and scientists in the years prior, Hayek, who had the introductory remarks to the discussion, did not shy away from attacking the intellectual class of his day. Indeed, he started his remarks gloomily by equating the intellectual to nothing short of a hanged man: “In the house of the hanged man, mention not the rope. So one should not really talk about intellectuals in the broadcasting studio. But they are simply a conspicuous force.”

For Hayek, the intellectuals are not scholars as such. Instead, they are “second-hand dealers in ideas.” They tend to have an outsized voice in public discourse because they are well-regarded for other reasons than the ones they pretend to be knowledgeable about. They are capable of spreading knowledge but they tend to do so with a certain agenda or at the very least without understanding what they actually say. They do not know “the science” of the matter—regardless of whether it is economics, foreign policy, social issues, or perhaps, one might add these days, public health—but they are considered worthwhile to listen to for various reasons of prestige.

For Hayek, the fact that our society is listening to these intellectuals is “a very serious problem,” since our entire public discourse is based on the views and perspectives of men that don’t know what they are talking about. Precisely because they don’t, they come up with rather unconventional worldviews. “It has become so threatening because it is [in the intellectual discourse] that the egregious ambitions of what man can capriciously make out of society emerge.” It is here, not among the actual experts, that utopian ideas emerge, Hayek argues: “the idea that everything can be done is of course the modern form of utopia that intellectuals in particular pursue.”

This is not just a problem of harming public discourse; it is, says Hayek, a threat to democracy itself. For in an unconstrained democracy, he explains, intellectuals will be able to make their voices heard and will be more fully capable of implementing their disastrous ideas. In an unconstrained democracy, the government and officeholders will constantly be dependent on the support of interest groups that are led by these very intellectuals dreaming of the perfect world. And thus, “socialism uses unconstrained democracy for its purposes.” This situation, Hayek continues, “troubles me terribly, since it discredits democracy, which is the only form of government that protects our individual liberty, so much that an increasing number of serious men whom I treasure become extremely skeptical of democracy.” And thus, Hayek demands a more constrained form of democracy, one that is better checked by other elements of government so as to limit the power of interest groups and the intellectual elite. Otherwise, he was convinced, “democracy will destroy itself.”

Even as we try to find good and sustainable ways of attaining prosperity, we can never lose sight of the “human ecology” itself.

Having started gloomy and having ended even gloomier, Hayek left the floor to his three interlocutors. Needless to say, the other two panelists were rather taken aback by Hayek’s fierce attack on the intellectual class. One of them openly refused to talk about Hayek’s comments at all, flagging them as merely “facetious.” The other one saw in the entire discussion a “covert weepiness and aggressiveness,” indeed, an unfair “denunciation.” To him, Hayek merely followed the Marxists in his definition of the intellectual as a menace, engaging in “romanticism” by elevating the working class as an ideal over the intellectual. But then, he wonders, why has Hayek himself not quit his academic chair and instead gone into the factory to his beloved ordinary people?

This is where the up-and-coming Ratzinger, the future Pope, came in and defended the almost thirty-year-older Hayek. Arguing that the origin of the word “intellectual” has historically been understood as men who have gained a reputation in one field or activity and now use this reputation in a field—or general affairs—in which they know much less, he concluded that “it seems to me that Mr. Hayek is not so absurd about his definition as [our fellow interlocutors] have portrayed it.” And yet, while Ratzinger agrees with the nature of the intellectual, he “wants to assess this differently after all than Mr. Hayek has done it.”

For Ratzinger, the dangers of intellectualism are not a sufficient reason to retreat from it entirely. Ever greater specialization and a rule of the experts, each in their own field, cannot be the solution either, he argues. If that happens, a discussion on human life in general vanishes and is made impossible, since everything is subjectivized. What the world dearly needs again are discussions on the objectivity of man, on the objective goodness of human life, which should be discussed once more on the basis of human reason.

Rather than merely accepting the premises of one’s field, even academics need to be willing again to go beyond their specific field and discuss the greater topics of the truth of human life—indeed, need to become Hayekian intellectuals. The theologian can be stuck just as much in his field as the economist can in his, and neither should certainly take the basic assumptions of their discipline and universalize them. For instance, if the economist’s premise is the theory of subjectivism, the economist should not consider all of human life subjective as well. Everyone, instead, is called—being courageous in humility of one’s own limits, a trait Hayek certainly could get on board with—to discuss the overarching themes of human life and man’s highest end, purpose, and goals.

Much could be said about this short yet valuable dialogue between these two great thinkers. Let’s leave it at a few short notes, however: Hayek’s remarks undoubtedly hit home in a particular way in our age. The Austrian economist was a great proponent of liberal political regimes understood in the classical sense. But he saw socialist intellectuals use these very regimes to manipulate and upend them through interest group lobbying (today they are still often economic socialists but have also found their new fancies in wokism). Looking at this situation, many of Hayek’s political allies, he says, turned their back on the prospects of free political regimes entirely. They became so alienated by the system that they lost all hope for it. Sound familiar?

And yet, Ratzinger reminds us—and should remind Hayekians and all in the classical liberal tradition—that perhaps the very problem is that we in the West have neglected discussions on the highest goods, on what makes an (objectively) good human life (and that there are manifold objectively bad ways to live a human life). This was one of the great lessons of Ratzinger’s oeuvre: that even as we try to find good and sustainable ways of attaining prosperity, we can never lose sight of the “human ecology” itself. We can never forget that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will” (even if he doesn’t hurt anyone by manipulating it). Ratzinger warns, we might infer from his comments: to defend a free political regime, we need to talk about what makes a human being capable of freedom, what makes human life truly beautiful and excellent. Neglecting this might lead to precisely the breakdown that Hayek observes.

We have here, then, little less than the debates that conservatives and classical liberals have today—and thus also an opportunity to learn from these great minds, both in their own right. Indeed, when taking into account both the profound insights of Hayek’s realism of what politics can do (or, perhaps more often, what it cannot) with Ratzinger’s magnificent considerations on human life, we might gain an entirely new perspective on our world today.