The European crisis is economic in nature, and brought to its current levels by a fiscally unsustainable welfare state. However, behind the big, redistributive government is an ideology that paved the way for the welfare state. Often referred to as “socialism” or, more precisely, “social democracy”, this ideology claims that the free world is inherently unjust and needs vast “correction mechanisms” to function in what they would deem a “better” way.
The yardstick used by social democrats is “social justice”. This concept has made its way deeply into the vocabularies of every European language and shaped the mindset of three generations of post-World War 2 taxpayers into believing that they have to surrender half, sometimes more, of what they earn to government. The idea of social justice has also made the same taxpayers tolerate that large segments of the population receive various forms of entitlements – money and services from government – that they don’t have to work for.
By shaping the minds of generations of Europeans into accepting social justice as some kind of “natural” part of society, the social democrats have accomplished almost universal acceptance for the welfare state. You don’t make it in European politics without one way or the other pledging allegiance to the welfare state; so called “conservatives” such as Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy all embraced the welfare state as a natural part of the social and economic order.
So long as the economies of Europe seemed to be doing well people in general saw little reason to question the welfare state. But since the crisis began voters have started expressing deep dissatisfaction with how it works. They are not ready to turn to libertarians to ask for alternative solutions, which in part is because there is practically no libertarian presence on the European political scene. Another explanation is that the idea of social justice still has exceptionally deep roots in the European mindset, so deep that this crisis has not yet made a notable dent in those roots. Therefore, when people see that the welfare state is beginning to crumble they look for alternative ways to save it, too often ending up voting for extremist parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn or radicals like Portugal’s communists or France’s Front National.
The deep roots of social justice are now about to bring down Europe as a first-world industrialized economy. It is questionable if even the macroeconomic equivalent of a nuclear disaster would wake up Europe’s voters enough to make them abandon social justice. A story from Der Spiegel illustrates just how cemented social justice has become in the European mindset. It starts with the story of a young German man in Munich trying to find a way to get his life started:
Who knows whether he will ever return to this office building. Who knows whether he will ever be allowed to set foot in such a building again — a place where employees sip their espressos on designer couches and gaze at the sky through a glass ceiling. Can, the 20-year-old son of Turkish immigrants, doesn’t know either, so he pulls out his smartphone and takes a few snapshots.
Let’s make one little observation here before we continue to listen to the Spiegel story. The set-up here is that Can is a first-generation German, and that he comes from a poor, “disadvantaged” background and therefore somehow is locked out of the latte-sipping, “privileged” designer-couch social settings where people make (by European standards) good money.
At the same time, Can has “large” – meaning fairly expensive – headphones and a smartphone. How disadvantaged are you if you can buy and maintain the account of a smartphone?
He photographs the shiny coffeemaker, the plants in concrete planters and the paternoster carrying men and women in business dress. At this point, Can is merely a guest. With his plaid shirt and large headphones dangling around his neck, he still looks noticeably out of place in the Munich offices of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He is there because one of the management consultants is his personal coach.
After this set-up, aimed to present Can as a victim of some kind of injustice, the story introduces a government-run program that requests of “privileged” people that they take even more of their time to spend on the “disadvantaged” – more time, that is, than they already plunk down through Germany’s vast, intrusive tax system:
The employment office has brought them together, and now they are collaborating on a project: Can’s future. It had looked pretty grim until now. Can had what advisors at the employment office call “difficult starting conditions.” He grew up in a neighborhood with many high-rise buildings and very few music schools. He repeated the 5th, 7th and 10th grades and left school with close to a failing grade in math and German. He didn’t even bother to send out job applications.
So here is a question that Der Spiegel carefully avoids. Can’s parents were Turkish immigrants. They came to Germany to do what? If they came there to build a better future for their kids, then why did they not make sure they did well in school? A kid who has to repeat three grades out of ten is either mentally incapable of going to school and needs serious help, or he is growing up in a home where the Western norm system is a notable absentee.
Clearly, Can does not belong to the former category, so the only conclusion we can draw is that he comes from a home where his parents did not make hard work, individual responsibility and commitment to one’s own future were the prevailing values.
Does lack of parental responsibility give children the right to other people’s time and money? No. Voluntary help is a different matter, though.
Now a consultant is trying to help him, a man “from another world,” as Can says, from a world in which people print their Ph.D. titles on their business cards and send their children on foreign exchange programs. From Mondays to Thursdays, BCG consultant Fabian Barthel works on plans for roads and dams in Africa. He spends his Friday afternoons on pro bono work, helping Can find an apprenticeship — as a sort of personal aid worker. “Can’s starting conditions were definitely worse than mine. But it can’t be that this shapes the rest of our lives,” says Barthel. Or at least this doesn’t agree with his notion of justice, he adds.
If Mr. Barthel wants to use his time to provide help for children and young men and women from poor backgrounds, then that is only something we should respect him for. But there is a side to this story that Der Spiegel does not provide: Germany has one of the most elaborate welfare states in the world, with generous assistance to families like Can’s. All this is paid for with high taxes taken predominantly out of the paychecks, and added on top of the consumption, of people like Mr. Barthel. He has already paid for all the assistance that Can could ever ask for, and yet the government asks him to chip in more, as a pro bono case worker for a government-run employment program.
At some point, even a German taxpayer should ask himself: when is government big enough?
Posters and flyers distributed around Germany provide people like Can and Barthel with an idea of how the political parties define justice. Politicians with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), praise child care subsidies for parents who stay home with their children. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) promises more stable pensions. Lawmakers say that everything that’s good about the German system should remain as it is.
In other words, re-arrange the deck chairs on the M/S Welfare State:
The parties have discovered the benefits using social justice as a campaign tool. The J-word is a common theme in many election platforms. The Greens invoke justice about 60 times while the SPD mentions the word almost 40 times in its program. The Left Party follows close behind. The SPD says it wants to contain what its chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, calls “the centrifugal forces in society,” by raising taxes on higher-earners. The Greens want to impose a levy on the assets of the wealthy. Their voters support “an equitable distribution of taxes,” even if it means reaching into their own pockets, says Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the Green Party’s top candidate.
And where are the conservatives, you ask?
Conservatives, meanwhile, aren’t tying the promise of social justice to higher taxes, but to government benefits. They want to increase pensions for older mothers and boost small retirement pensions by turning them into a “life achievement pension.” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party also wants to increase the childcare subsidy next year. “Every family is different — and each family is especially important to us,” the conservatives have printed on their campaign posters. The message is clear: We are throwing money at you.
With this commitment to social justice, how can anything possibly go wrong in Germany? After all, the same concept has worked so brilliantly in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France…
In fairness, the Spiegel article does report that Germans in general are expressing weariness when it comes to taxes:
About two-thirds of Germans believe that social conditions have become more inequitable in the last legislative period. At the same time, the share of Germans who view the tax system as unfair has increased sharply. Only 21 percent of those polled consider income distribution to be the most important problem.
German taxpayers are bankrolling good parts of the Greek welfare state on top of their own. As a result, the German economy has come to a standstill and it is becoming increasingly difficult for German families to improve their lives through hard work, career commitment and good management of personal finances. When economic realities bite and don’t let go, eventually the pain sets in.
This does not mean that Germans in general are on their way to abandoning the concept of social justice. But it means that they are at least grumbling about ancillary aspects of their welfare state. This raises the big question whether or not they will change their minds about the welfare state’s general principles fast enough to save the European continent from becoming a full-scale economic wasteland.