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Social Justice and Social Policy

by Friedhelm Hengsbach Thursday, Apr. 28, 2005 at 7:52 AM

We run the risk of making economic success absolute. However economicsuccess is a means to an end..Economic success is only legitimate when it improves the living conditions of citizens..The social foundations of democracy fade when poverty, unemploy-ment and social insecurity increase.


By Friedhelm Hengsbach, S.J.

[This article from 1/12/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The importance of social policy among party interests is all confused. The dominant theme of public and church institutions, namely saving, cutting and canceling, has seized social policy. The social should be offered cheaply. Social policy is made subservient to spectacular economic goals.


Agenda 2010 was more a reform spectacle than a reform. Century-old works were cancelled. The burdens on public budgets have shifted to the private sector. Just and effective social reforms would be very different than the massively staged changes.

The reform spectacle staged by the parties in parliament was accompanied by a striking appeal to the political norm of justice… I discovered six positions in the different points of view presented in the debates.

Firstly, the parties bid farewell to the traditional models of justice that are no longer viable given the global challenges. Justice must adjust to the conditions of the 21st century and be redefined as “modern” and contemporary”.

Secondly, distribution justice fixated on redistributing material goods or financial resources and on equality of outcomes should be abandoned. Instead, equal opportunities are emphasized – universal and equal access to education and participation in social work. Education is the key to social integration and any work is better than none.

After the instant steam of these battle slogans faded, it became clear that social rules of distribution refer to chances, means of power, acknowledgment and rights, not only to material goods or goods generally. The distribution question is the core of the justice question. The preference of education sounds like an alibi in view of the fact that top university degrees no longer guarantee participation in the system of gainful work as long as the doors to meaningful job opportunities are closed to highly trained men and women.

Thirdly, individual human needs should be considered more strongly, especially the desire for freedom. People have different talents and interests. Considering this is a command of justice. Therefore differences and inequalities should be acknowledged and promoted. These differences are personally deserved and socially commendable. As long as different incomes and assets can refer back to personal talents and efforts, they should be recognized as merits. However the actual distribution of incomes and assets is strongly determined in advance by the social status of parents, sexist role models, social relations and economic hierarchies of power.

Fourthly, performance justice and market justice should be emphasized more sharply. As democracy is regarded as the political order of freedom, so the market economy could be described as an order of freedom. The primary distribution of income and assets gives a premium to personal initiative and acceptance of personal responsibility.

Exchange- and market-justice with the principle of strict equivalence is subordinate to the principle of distribution justice. Every legitimate exchange presupposes just availability of the goods to be exchanged and just distribution. The chain of exchanges ends with just distribution if earlier exchanges were just.

Fifthly, criticism of distribution justice extends to the social state. The social state is confronted with exaggerated expectations as though it could exhaustively protect against social risks. The bureaucratic development of the social state incapacitates the needy more and more and robs them of their personal initiative. This development has undermined civil society and family forms of solidarity. Therefore an “activating state” must be reduced to its core functions. This state must give possibilities to social actors to organize themselves and unfold their own talents.

Nevertheless civil society cannot fill the social-political vacuum left by a competition state. Civil society initiatives show the class character of society. They presuppose secure jobs, incomes and relationships and are oriented in sporting and cultural preferences. Businesses as social actors rightly pursue particular interests, company and economic interests.

Sixthly, the economically active generation becomes “swindlers to their own children” in the conflict of the generations. Therefore generational justice is violated. The demographic development and the mammoth state indebtedness that is both open and hidden have annulled the generational contract. The term “generational justice” remains vague regarding both terms generation and justice. The family generational sequence of earliest ancestors, grandmother, mother and child cannot be transferred to the modern paid work society. The principle of justice merely regulates the rights and duties of concrete persons and groups of persons. In a paid work society, the biological composition of the population is secondary to growth expectations, productivity and level of employment. Independent of age, the group of employed persons gains a national income that serves their own livelihood and the livelihood of the non-employed.


The 1997 Joint Economic and Social Declaration of the evangelical and catholic churches developed in an extensive consultation process is ignored in the justice discourse of the political elites. Church groups and associations invoke this declaration more. In contrast, the text of a group of middle class Catholics and opinions of the bishops’ conference underlie the political elite discourse.


In the 1997declaration, Germany was described as a country marked by three deep fractures between unemployed and employed persons, poor and rich and East- and West Germans. Four challenges were identified: the continuously high unemployment, the social security systems, the environmental threat and the pressure burdening nation states. Four normative models were formulated: (1) the right to paid work and a new understanding of labor, (2) rejection of a “pure market economy” and promotion of a liberal-social democracy including collective bargaining, industrial relations schemes and joint determination of employees, (3) the design of an ecological-social market economy and (4) new forms of an expanded solidarity beyond national borders. Four paths of reform were sketched: reorganization of social work guaranteeing the equality of men and women, social security protecting from poverty, ecological reorganization and new forms of solidarity.


The text of prominent Catholics published at the end of 2003 and commissioned by the bishops bids farewell to the ecumene and consultation of the church base. Three central challenges are described: the demographic development, the erosion of forms of solidarity and structural unemployment. The description of an eroding solidarity is joined with an extremely exaggerated bashing of the social state that is only a caricature of the real social state. This caricature is an essential element of the reform deadlock in German. The social state is overstrained when it claims to regulate, order and organize all areas of human life. The social state is fixated on questions of distribution justice and redistribution of material goods and financial resources and has weakened solidarity and personal responsibility. From an original protection of the disadvantaged against the risks of poverty and distress, it has become an inscrutable thicket of transfer payments and claims to an increasingly comfortable normality. The social state has drained the foundations of social solidarity, undermined the willingness for other solidarities and weakened more than strengthened solidarity in the family and desire for children.

The text offers perspectives for long-term reforms. However these reforms strike four barriers. Firstly, there is the notorious German corporatism that favors short-term and particular interests so the organized interests of the unemployed, families, children and universal long-term interests are ignored. The second barrier is a social policy fixated on distribution that stresses legal claims to money transfer. Thirdly, federalism blocks the path of long-term reform. The fourth barrier is that institutions that consider the whole and the future do not exist.

The ethical orientations take up the option that people, especially the excluded, should stand in the center of the reforms. The assumption of the perspective of the poor gives priority to overcoming exclusion, guaranteeing a subsistence level, limiting inequalities and realizing participatory justice. Decisional possibilities of individuals should be as wide as possible and the state’s possibilities as narrow as possible. The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (in this sequence) explain one another. Subsidiarity consists in assistance amid over-demand; solidarity consists in respecting the decisional space of individuals as much as possible. State functions are restricted. The exaggerated social state criticism is coupled with a naïve superstition in the output of civil society.

The integral social policy outlined by the text contains ambivalent elements. This social policy is oriented less in the distribution of material resources than in the principle of equal opportunities and participatory justice. Whether real equal opportunities are meant that require redistribution or whether participatory justice includes a democratic-political dimension is still open. Fields outside traditional social policy, e.g. education policy and family policy, are included.

Family policy is an upcoming generation policy because economic innovations and an efficient social state are only possible with children. This is only true as long as the children find apprenticeships and jobs. The demographic component would be completely overrated without this inclusion.


In the journal of the Catholic Academy in Berlin Nr. 4/2004, Cardinal Lehmann published a brief statement on reforming the social state. His themes were echoed in an address of Hans Langendorfer at the German Bishops’ Conference.

Reforms are necessary because people are always in an exodus mode according to both officials. A new thinking is necessary, a farewell to traditional thought patterns. Humanity has also bid farewell to the idea that the earth is a flat disk. The idea of justice may not be confused with equality. It is also a misunderstanding of injustice when this is equated with abandonment of assets. Thus we must reflect again: what is socially just?

Social justice is a quality of community – to help individuals gain prosperity through actions. However this public service is not a one-sided claim of individuals on the community but is bound to individuals’ willingness to perform. Social justice is also a characteristic of the actions of individuals who are ready to do everything necessary for the community for the sake of public welfare, in other words to practice solidarity.

Social justice is not static. What is socially just must be formulated again and again in a situation-oriented way and can never be defined absolutely. Society must assure itself again and again about what is socially just. Socially just reforms may include restrictions and exactions like cuts in personal contributions or co-payments in the public health system. Children becoming poverty risks is absolutely unreasonable.


On 11/18/ 2004, bishop Kamphaus answered the question “How social is democracy?” with five theses. At the outset, he described the situation in the factories: rationalization pressure, work concentration, anxiety about jobs, location shifts, concessions of personnel and dismissals of trained and untrained youths and seniors.

The first thesis focuses on the ruinous competition. “We are ourselves driven into a national corner by competition in the world society. We should not forget our global responsibility amid our worries about labor and prosperity in Germany. Germany is the motor of competition that has ruinous effects for the weaker. The weaker fall by the wayside.”

The second thesis turns against an economic colonialization. “We run the risk of making economic success absolute. However economic success is a means to an end even in crisis times. Economic success is only legitimate when it improves the living conditions of citizens. That life and democracy succeed should be precedent political interests.”

The third thesis emphasizes social democracy. “The social foundations of democracy fade when poverty, unemployment and social insecurity increase.” The right to political participation is the key of democracy and the social state. Universal access to education, a net of solidarian assurance and participation in paid work create the material and cultural prerequisites of active participation in the political and economic decision-making processes. A vital democracy cannot survive without a strong social state.

The fourth thesis criticizes the so-called reform of Hartz IV. “The Hartz IV package in some respects does not correspond to social justice. Through some of its measures, more unemployed persons in the future will experience their fate as humiliation and be denied a dignified life.” Unemployment can hardly be removed through increased official pressure on the unemployed by making it economically worse for them when they refuse job offers below income support. Demanding and promoting with sanctions also cannot reduce unemployment. The causes of unemployment are deficient jobs, not deficient motivation of the unemployed. Benefit cuts that force the level of basic security below the socio-cultural subsistence level contradict social justice.

The fifth thesis outlines an innovative reform of the social state. “The problems of the German social state will not be solved by its dismantling. Rather all employed persons should participate in the financing and benefits of social security.” Against the total social state criticism levied by the middle class camp, Kamphaus defends the social state in a phase where personnel are forced to extra-work and wage renunciation while corporate executives have golden handshakes and gain lower top tax rates through political gifts.


The red-green thread that the so-called reforms realize in the context of Agenda 2010 has three characteristic features. Firstly, social risks are individualized. For example, mass unemployment is explained by individual failure, namely deficient willingness for work or deficient capacity for work. Gentle pressure to raise motivation or better and faster mediation of case managers is the remedy for mass unemployment. In health insurance, certain risks are charged to individual conduct.

The second characteristic of the so-called reforms is replacing or supplementing solidarian insurance through private provisions. This will cause problems for the unemployed and employed persons with low earned incomes, not for the wealthy. The successes of pensions are not discouraging. The ability to save is lacking, not the will to save.

The third characteristic is that basic rights that can be legally demanded are converted into market-friendly exchange relations. Ms. Merkel described the new social contract between the come-of-age citizen and the state in the new social market economy as follows: You, citizen, are obligated to performance and we will bring a return favor by helping you. Hartz IV will allow the unemployed and case managers to negotiate at eye level. The integrating agreements are “unequal contracts,” in the extreme case forced labor.

The German chancellor spoke of the “most important, most fundamental and most complex social reform in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.” He referred to the two sides of the Hartz IV coin – the simplified administration of income support and unemployment benefits summed up in unemployment benefits II and the unprecedented cuts in the social net following the bureaucratic change. The reform of the labor- and social administrations may prove advantageous if the cost-benefit calculation turns out positive. The unparalleled cuts in the situation of the long-term unemployed resolved by parliamentarians who hardly have a chance of ever becoming unemployed or receiving income support are a challenge of the political class to the unemployed, sick and poor. The political class has snatched from them a share of the social wealth and distributed it among themselves.


Among the winners of Hartz IV are 1.2 million persons on social security who are classified as capable of work. They are better off because the minimum amount for social insurance is taken over by the agency. Children and parents will no longer be called on for support and the assets of seniors will be better protected. The receivers of unemployment benefits who previously received little assistance according to the rules of income support and students who find no work opportunities after their studies are also seen as winners. The social benefits will remain the same for 200,000 recipients of unemployment assistance while 400,000 will be better off.

Those recipients of social security who depend on assistance in special situations and are not included in the lump sum amounts of unemployment benefits II. are classified as the losers, not the winners,

3.2 “LOSERS”

Among the losers are the former recipients of unemployment assistance who had comfortable earnings during their gainful employment and those who formed a need-community with a life partner whose income was counted in unemployment benefits II. This is true more often for East Germans than for West Germans. A million beneficiaries or claimants of unemployment assistance are in a worse position and a half million receive no unemployment benefits II.

The situations of the losers deteriorate as soon as the limited awards run out or as soon as case managers apply strict standards on appropriate housing or urge selling assets. Refusal of non-immoral work that is 30% below the standard wage can cause benefit cuts.


Assessment of this “supplementary compensation measure” for enlivening employment and growth depends on the perspective.

From the view of individual long-term unemployed, this chance of working is preferable to idleness, the loss of a structured sense of time and decreasing contacts with regularly working colleagues. Some will seize this chance even though the time-span of six or nine months is hardly sustaining. Others will see it as a degrading disparagement of abilities and refuse.

This chance is judged positively from the perspective of some institutions. Personnel gaps can be closed. Provisions for those in need of care or the needy, the sick, students and youths could be improved. In the past, administrative works were accomplished. The tasks of colleagues present in grave sicknesses could be temporarily taken over. The “wage-cost-subsidies” of agencies are readily pocketed. The demarcation of cooperative and supplementary works that do not supersede regular job relations is problematic. Whether an institution offers training so that a regular employer-employee relation can come out of the 1 Euro job must be proven. To the extent that the institution can and will cooperate with the sanction mechanisms of the agency and whether the institution remains an advocate of the disadvantaged affect the credibility of church caritas and diakonia.

From the view of colleagues, the question is raised how they deal with workers in an institution when there are no employment contracts. Church institutions have also long broken with the principle “equal pay for equal work.”

From a macro-economic and social perspective, the 1 Euro jobs will be a downward spiral of incomes, training and self-respect as soon as the intensified reasonability rules are strictly applied. The established low-wage sector eviscerates the most precious resource of a society, namely working capacity. Trained workers are urgently needed for a developed industrial society. The extortion of personnel and works councils by corporate executives whose business profits soar and the bizarre proposals of employers and politicians for generally extending working hours to lower costs are clear signs of how the general wage structure will start slipping through Hartz IV. Experiences with Hartz I and II showed that no additional jobs were created. Working conditions with social security were exchanged for precarious forms of employment.

From the public law perspective of constitutional lawyers, many legitimate objections and protests can be raised. Firstly, can the change from contribution-based insurance benefits into tax-financed care benefits for the unemployed who gained claims through years of paid work be simply removed by a law? Secondly, can the repeated manipulations of the rules of income support downwards in unemployment benefits II do justice to the constitutional claim to a socio-cultural subsistence level making possible a dignified life, namely sharing in the minimum lifestyle? Thirdly, are the so-called integrating agreements a hidden form of forced labor?

A list of improvements in social monitoring of welfare associations was offered to German chancellor Schroeder. The clear legal position of the unemployed in the so-called integrating agreements and in acceptance of 1 Euro jobs is the most important point. In addition, reasonable labor should be moved near working conditions with social security or at least near residences. A public debate about the rules underlying unemployment benefits II and the principle of need justice as a constitutional command is overdue. Finally the rules of unemployment benefits II in the new territories should be adjusted to the benefits in old Germany.

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