Germany's welfare state under fire

BERLIN, Germany — According to an article published this past summer in one of Germany’s most widely read newspapers, the country’s welfare state is a “fiscal kleptocracy” that has transformed the country into a “swamp of resentment” and degraded its citizens into “mystified subjects of tax law.” The text, by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, goes on in that vein for some 3,000 words.

It was an argument meant to spark a public debate, and, by any measure, it's been a success. Among the country's intellectual class, the article has served as kindling for a fiercely fought and wide-ranging conversation about the national economy that, six months on, still shows little sign of abating. Indeed, the discussion has struck a nerve in Germany at a time when Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has announced that the centerpiece of its political plans for the next four years would be tax breaks that total some 24 billion euros.

Merkel has largely been modest about her vision to change German society, downplaying the transformative potential of her tax reforms, but the country's intellectuals have been busy debating the merits of a radical social manifesto that was provided on her behalf.

Sloterdijk, the author of the article and one of the main participants in the subsequent debate, is not an economist or a political activist, but a professor of philosophy. He's also one of the country's best known public intellectuals, and a sort of celebrity by virtue of serving as co-host of a national television program called “The Philosophic Quartet” — a periodic late-night kaffee klatsch, in which Sloterdijk invites tweedy colleagues to a television studio in Wolfsburg to discuss and provide theoretical context for issues of the day. (That a show like “The Philosophic Quartet” would be in a position to lend anyone a measure of public celebrity is a peculiarly German phenomenon, the product of a culture that still prizes its contributions — by way of Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche — to the Western world's deepest conundrums.)

Indeed, the philosophic tenor of the welfare state debate is one of the reasons it has found such resonance in Germany. The discussion has been reflective of the manner in which the German opinion-making class generally prefers to grapple with questions of economic significance: light on the data and show-your-work empiricism, and heavy on moral theorizing and sociological analysis. The arguments over the past six months have explored both the opacity of the tax code and the pre-conditions of moral behavior. The participants have discussed broad contours of European history and evoked the ethical legacies of Rousseau, Marx and St. Just.

It helps that Sloterdijk has lived-up to his reputation as one of the country's leading intellectual provacateurs. When the self-described “life-long social democrat” (the Social Democrats reside on Germany’s left) published his intemperate attack on the welfare state in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung under the headline “Confiscation via Income Tax,” it was clearly with the intention of stirring up debate. His diagnosis was earnest. In the age of globalization, he argued, Germany's expanding underclass and its increasingly debt-laden state were in a co-dependent relationship at the expense of the country's high-achievers. Indeed, the institutions of the welfare state — above all, the rent subsidies and social welfare payments made to the unemployed — lend themselves to an ethical system that privileges the marginalized. This leads to an unsustainable reliance on an ever-dwindling class of citizens who are materially successful.

In order to keep the system afloat, the country's value-system needed to be turned on its head, he argued. But Sloterdijk's recommendations to that end were fanciful: Income taxes should be abolished in favor of a system in which the fiscal needs of the state are met by voluntary contributions from the rich. Achievers would be praised for, and feel the virtue of, their generosity, rather than being made to feel guilty for their success, or resentful of society's dependence on them.

It was an intentionally provocative thought experiment. Indeed, the welfare state is such an unquestioned pillar of German political life that it's difficult to imagine Sloterdijk's argument, as well as its long echo, haven't been partly motivated by the allure of questioning a taboo.

But even Sloterdijk probably didn't anticipate the level of ire he ended up inciting. Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt School for Social Research — the institution with the most storied ties to the post-war German welfare-state economy — felt compelled to publish a lengthy article in the pages of a leading weekly newspaper attacking Sloterdijk's philosophic corpus and declaring his lack of earnestness to be a menace to German society: It should be obvious, Honneth argued, that the sorts of economic and personal freedoms that Sloterdijk wanted to reward with praise were themselves dependent on the economic and social equalities maintained by the welfare state.

Honneth only fanned the flames he was hoping to douse. Other philosophers wrote articles contending that Honneth's attack was motivated by his own and his institution's anxiety at losing position in the national market for philosophic influence — serious business in Germany. Others wrote in defense of Honneth.

The contributions continue to pour in. Months later, several newspapers are still running series of articles dedicated to considering the fate of the welfare state: whether it's going to be sustainable over the next several generations; whether the country has lost sight of the balance between considerations of social justice and imperatives of economic and personal freedom; whether the bureaucracy of redistribution had dampened the religious and spiritual virtues that originally motivated it; whether Germany had ill-served the country's elite; and to what extent Germany's poor are really being helped by the system as it was currently designed.

And though they've occasionally betrayed personal pettiness and bitterness, and they're usually couched in obscure philosophic language, the arguments wrestling with the current welfare-state system have been taut and urgent, as if they've been bottled up for a long while. In all, they've served as a testimony that the topic has been overdue for consideration. Merkel, cautious as she is, seems unlikely to join the discussion. But, with the greater public picking up on the echoes of the debate, it's likely only a matter of time until a politician decides to tune in.