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Germany's welfare state under fire

One of Germany's foremost public intellectuals, Peter Sloterdijk, began the offensive on the welfare state.

A young girl holds a doll while her parents look for free toy presents for their children at a social welfare center in the Hamburg suburb of Harburg, Dec. 8, 2009. The Hamburg-based Toys Company collects used toys with the assistance of the city's garbage collection service and private donations, cleans and repairs them with the help of jobless people and gives them to people receiving social welfare payments. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

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.