Introduction: Moving Bulky Goods. How New Ideas and Partisan Politics Are Transforming the German Welfare State

By Lamping, Wolfram; Rub, Friedbert W. | German Policy Studies, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Moving Bulky Goods. How New Ideas and Partisan Politics Are Transforming the German Welfare State


Lamping, Wolfram, Rub, Friedbert W., German Policy Studies


The focus of interest surrounding the welfare state has changed gradually but sustainably, given the challenges of economic globalization (Scharpf/Schmidt 2000), the segmented Europeanization of national welfare states (Lamping 2009) and the huge internal problems mature Western welfare states face (Ferrera/Hemerijck/Rhodes 2004). Traditional normative premises have eroded while new ideas, interpretations and ideologies have entered the political agenda. But how to move the welfare state as a bulky commodity and in which direction? In the wake of increasing transformation pressures, new protagonist constellations have emerged. Facing new challenges and new uncertainties, welfare states seem to be less resilient to change than expected in the early "new politics of the welfare state" debates. The literature provides a plurality of concepts in order to explain both ground-breaking policy innovations as well as stepwise policy change--or indeed inertia. One of the core findings of comparative welfare state research is that political institutions as independent variables certainly matter (veto points or veto players, bicameralism, federalism, party system, etc.) when it comes to reforming advanced Western welfare states. But politics and "creative opportunism" (Offe 2001, 368) of governments also play an important role. This includes, for example, the deliberate strategy of "experimental law-making" in German pension policy (Lamping/Rub 2006), the institutionalization of ad-hoc reform commissions in German labor market and health policy reform in order to involve other players in the reform process, to circumvent veto points and to increase the legitimacy of reform proposals (Lamping 2006), or the engagement of complex processes of political exchange (such as in pension and long-term care policy). Therefore, the politics of "defrosting" (cf. Hering 2002; Palier 2000) the welfare state, i.e. when governments push forward and successfully overcome institutional rigidities and political resistance by opening up new windows of reform, appear to be more contingent, surprising, disorderly, and "messy" (Offe 2001,: 368) than often presumed. The 'new politics of the welfare state' literature, by contrast, tends to underestimate politics and to overestimate the effect of political institutions.

Conflicts of interest and electoral threats can be 'tamed' when governments choose a strategy which helps to manage a bundle of political risks and tradeoffs, because in the 'new politics of the welfare state', governments are simultaneously--and perhaps predominantly--concerned with solving their own problems. In welfare-state restructuring or retrenchment it is these pragmatic or 'purposeful opportunists' who are the most creative and effective ones: They make a difference. We call that the purposeful self-enabling of politics. With regard to Germany, the argument, therefore, is that a highly horizontally and vertically fragmented, veto-heavy political system could make fundamental policy change less likely, but it may also facilitate and promote it because it provides governments with many opportunities to shift the blame, to share the blame, to blur accountability--and thus to reduce electoral risks. The scope for policy manoeuvre and reform success might be even larger than in political systems where power is concentrated.

Welfare state literature shows that there is a different logic between the old and new politics of the welfare state: (1) Whereas it is relatively easy to receive support for the development of popular social policies, political leaders are generally afraid of negative reactions to rollbacks of the welfare state (vested interests, welfare-state clientele, etc.). Electoral competition is thus risky for governing parties when it comes to adopting far-reaching reforms which are often painful for and unpopular among voters. While the trente glorieuses, i.e. the post-war phase of expansion of the western welfare states, seems to have been sufficiently investigated, the contested politics of re-structuring the welfare state is still a challenging field of research: retrenchment and recalibration politics put high strategic and political demands on governments, as many studies demonstrate, since the distribution of cuts and costs and there-adjustment of programs is a sensitive and barely manageable issue in liberal democracies. …

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