Introduction: farewell to Bismarck or moving forward back to Bismarck? Transformations of the German welfare state.

VerfasserLamping, Wolfram
PostenOtto von Bismarck - Essay
  1. General perspectives of this issue

    A couple of years ago, drawing on recent pension reforms, we described the German welfare state as being in a state of transition towards an "uncertain something else" (Lamping and Rub 2004). We argued that the German welfare state is beginning to lose its distinctive features as a conservative type of welfare state (knowing that Esping-Andersen used the word "conservative" as a term of political conflict as well as an analytical category, Esping-Andersen 1990). We argued that the German welfare state, and perhaps all those in Europe, will lose their distinct character as subtypes of the three (or many more) "worlds of welfare". While denying any kind of convergence towards a new or common welfare state model, we hypothesized that there will be a new type of welfare state, a recombinant welfare state pragmatically combining elements of the three "worlds of welfare" and adding new variations within each policy and within each type of welfare state. Following on from that, welfare statehood seems to be in a new era of hybridization (cf. Schubert et al. (eds.) 2009). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that policy change within welfare states appears to be rather polymorphic, along with the overall picture of the paths pursued by welfare states in the 21st century. The contributions to this issue of German Policy Studies support this impression. Undoubtedly, this new era of hybridization appears to cause great confusion in the eyes of those trying to work out ideal types. The welfare state policies are ambivalent and ambiguous because politics is ambivalent and ambiguous: political decisions often do not follow clear political objectives (due to veto players, the need to make compromises, etc.), and neither does social policy. Despite this ambivalence and ambiguity, some tendencies are visible.

    The authors of this issue on the policies of the German welfare state provide pieces of the puzzle. They provide empirical evidence not only for the theoretical argument of recombinant welfare states, but for what really happens with and within the German case in times of uncertainty. At first glance, when taking a more holistic view of the welfare state, contradictory processes seem to take place in different sectors at the same time, rendering it sometimes virtually impossible to argue that policy change is consistent both within and between policy sectors. There are, at the same time, increases in benefits and harsh cuts, greater state interventionism and greater self-regulation, greater competition and greater state control, greater self-responsibility and greater state paternalism, greater tax-financing and greater reliance on individual private contributions, greater means-tested basic-income provision and greater inequality, new policies which reduce status protection and those which explicitly try to guarantee status protection. One is faced, moreover, with gradual and radical change alike. For those familiar with the emergence, consolidation, retrenchment and recalibration of the welfare state, it is anything but surprising that the overall picture is somewhat puzzling.

    In an earlier issue of German Policy Studies (Lamping and Rub 2008a), the politics of German welfare state reform were discussed from different perspectives. The core question addressed by that earlier issue was: what historical, political and institutional factors and drivers (ideas, crises, interests, strategies, players, etc.) make reforms possible despite their generally low popular support, and which are of importance with respect to the direction and content of reforms? In the issue at hand, in contrast, the policies of German welfare state reform are at the center of interest.

    Understanding why and how policies change and whether the changes make a difference is a core area of welfare state research. "Change", however, is a slippery term, difficult to conceptualize, define and operationalize, let alone to establish the mechanisms and conditions which promote or hamper it. Change can mean many different things and can comprise many phenomena. In this issue, we refer to change in terms of the policy dimension, i.e. to the content of change: changes in policy instruments, policy definitions and institutional arrangements. In this respect and with regard to the findings of the contributions in this issue, we mainly refer to change under consideration of four sub-dimensions: process, direction, output/outcome and scope, along with ideological implication (the ideological implications will be discussed in part 3 of this introduction).

    1) Process: Capano/Howlett (2009: 2) distinguish between four theoretical perspectives on change, namely the "cyclical" (in which change occurs but returns to the status quo), the "dialectic" (in which change occurs through a process of negotiation and synthesis), "linear" (in which change occurs in an evolutionary fashion without any clear end point) and "teleological" (in which change occurs in the direction of a final and identifiable goal-state) patterns. The contributions to this issue certainly belong-to varying degrees-to the "dialectic" and "teleological" patterns of policy change. While they are all the results of bargaining and compromising processes, the question of a normative leitbild and final identifiable goal-state must be answered independently for each case. Although all the policy fields discussed here are in a phase of transition, in pension policy and labor market policy, the future contours seem to be much clearer and more visible than they appear to be in health policy, family policy and poverty policy. Apart from poverty, the future direction and structure of health and family are still much more politically contested and uncertain for many different reasons.

    2) Direction: path-dependence is undoubtedly a classical concept of welfare-state research. However, path-dependence, as has often been discussed, is used in a variety of ways to describe and explain a variety of phenomena (c.f. Pierson 2000; 2003; Mahoney 2000). Path-dependency has many faces, which does not make it easy to apply this concept. In addition, it points to a serious paradox: the direction of reforms is, more or less, tied to political decision-making, thus reducing the intensity and scope of reforms. At the same time, this makes reform changes more or less necessary simply because of the path-dependency of the developments of the welfare states.

    Welfare state researchers seek to explain change, but often apply a theorem--path-dependency--which seems to be most inappropriate for explaining change. Nevertheless, in order to explain change, they mobilize a great deal of creativity to transform the notion of non-change into a concept of change. We claim, on a very general level with regard to the contributions to this issue, that path-dependence should by no means be mistaken for "non-change". This partly leads to the aspect--or dialectic--of ""stability" and ""change", which should not be dealt with separately. The two constantly and necessarily co-exist and are mutually dependent. There is no change without stability and vice versa. This seems trivial, but in reality it is not. Furthermore, the contributions to this issue suggest differentiating between micro and macro-path-dependencies. Micro-paths of change can eventually lead to a macro-change. Macro-changes are often the result of--and are accompanied by--critical junctures, i.e. fundamental choices within situations of great uncertainty (such as in pension or labor market policy in Germany). Such situations are fairly rare. The everyday political business in welfare state reform consists of small changes and small "course corrections".

    3) Output/outcome: when measuring and operationalizing welfare state change, it is, as Green-Pedersen (2007: 16) emphasizes, important to differentiate between the output and the outcome of a reform: "The output perspective regards the welfare state as a number of government programs or policies, and welfare state reforms as changes to these outputs or programs. (...) Adopting an outcome perspective, the welfare state is viewed more from recipients' perspective, as a government's commitment to, for instance, minimizing inequality or maintaining full employment." Following this line of argument, comparative research as well as case studies should clearly define whether they intend to analyze the effects of policies or the enacted laws (measures) as such. The latter makes it quite difficult to conclude from the policy perspective to the actual implications on the population or certain policy sectors--and vice versa. Moreover, Hacker (2005: 73) alludes to the point that "too often, as retrenchment studies suggest, claims about institutional stability slip without warning or reflection into claims about outcomes stability". This is not necessarily so. Whether or not people benefit or suffer from reforms, or whether or not reforms achieve what they are supposed to achieve are...

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