The End of the Welfare State
It is absolutely clear and indisputable that social benefits and the public debt, and thus the debt service, must be brought down considerably if our country wishes to safeguard its future. Though one sometimes hears that certain areas, such as the defense budget (which has so often borne the brunt), should be subject to further reductions instead. But that fails to acknowledge both the ongoing importance of maintaining a rapid defense force and the relatively small size of the defense budget. In 1996, it amounted to 47,381 billion marks – not even a third of the welfare budget of the federal government alone, namely, 167,386 billion marks.
Any self-respecting society needs to provide assistance to the helpless and weak, to people who, through no fault of their own, have temporarily fallen onto hard times. That is so self-evident that it virtually goes without saying. But when we speak of the crucial overhaul of the welfare state, the issue is not support for the “ashamed poor” – as people used to say – but rather the agglomeration of state benefits that we have all come to view as welcome amenities over the past decades and that we have gladly accepted. Many have gotten so used to these benefactions that they have long taken them for granted and are often no longer aware of the extent to which their living conditions have been made easier, enhanced, enriched by public funds.
Regrettably, that is a thing of the past, simply due to a shortage of funds. The coffers are empty; federal, state, and local governments are dangerously over-indebted. Nevertheless, it is unfortunately still unclear whether the necessary rethinking process will start smoothly and soon. We definitely need both patient and adamant efforts to shake up our citizens and to make them see that business cannot continue as usual. It is irrelevant whether we speak of a community of need, solidarity, or patriotism. The important thing is the realization that the years of plenty are over. Storms are approaching, and we all have to get on deck to help weatherproof our ship. Or else it could capsize.
Of course, we have to make sure that no segment of the population is forced to carry a greater burden than others. That is why tax reform that eliminates certain write-offs, the reform of the pension and health-care systems, and the cutting of social benefits and subsidies have to go hand in hand, since each affects different groups and different interests. Social peace can only be preserved if the vast majority of our country’s people can be convinced that everyone will be affected by cutbacks, and that these cutbacks will be weighted and differentiated in order to take individual circumstances into account.
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Did the welfare state up to now actually satisfy the hopes people had in it? Didn’t it instead destroy the self-confidence of all those concerned in that they became dependent and no longer dared to rely on their own strength to take control of their own lives? On top of that, dependence on an anonymous bureaucracy creates fear, especially since groups that used to offer support and solidarity – such as families, neighborhoods, co-workers, voluntary associations – have eroded, and even disappeared entirely.
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As mentioned above, this development greatly fostered the isolation of the individual. Individuals no longer feel any kind of affiliation with a group that could help them in an emergency; instead, they see themselves referred to an anonymous bureaucracy with a series of different people handling their case, and that increases feelings of insecurity rather than creating psychological stability. But if that is so, if a dependence that undermines people’s self-esteem makes them more fearful and inwardly less free, then the entire welfare state is likely established on a false premise.
On the other hand, anyone who demands ground-breaking, comprehensive changes in the public consciousness must be aware that he or she will be accused of cold-heartedness and social insensitivity (or even rightwing extremism). People will say that since the existing welfare state is regarded as leftist, anyone who speaks of its demise must, by force of necessity, occupy the right end of the political spectrum. But this objection won’t gain traction, because the facts speak to the contrary. Machiavelli already observed that, “He who introduces [a new order] makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order.”
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