The Social Market Economy

The Social Market Economy

The Germans proudly label their economy a "soziale Marktwirtschaft ," or "social market economy," to show that the system as it has developed after World War II has both a material and a social--or human--dimension. They stress the importance of the term "market" because after the Nazi experience they wanted an economy free of state intervention and domination. The only state role in the new West German economy was to protect the competitive environment from monopolistic or oligopolistic tendencies--including its own. The term "social" is stressed because West Germans wanted an economy that would not only help the wealthy but also care for the workers and others who might not prove able to cope with the strenuous competitive demands of a market economy. The term "social" was chosen rather than "socialist" to distinguish their system from those in which the state claimed the right to direct the economy or to intervene in it.

Beyond these principles of the social market economy, but linked to it, comes a more traditional German concept, that of Ordnung , which can be directly translated to mean order but which really means an economy, society, and polity that are structured but not dictatorial. The founders of the social market economy insisted that Denken in Ordnungen --to think in terms of systems of order--was essential. They also spoke of Ordo-Liberalismus because the essence of the concept is that this must be a freely chosen order, not a command order.

Over time, the term "social" in the social market economy began to take on a life of its own. It moved the West German economy toward an extensive social welfare system that has become one of the most expensive in the world. Moreover, the West German federal government and the states (Lšnder ; sing., Land ) began to compensate for irregularities in economic cycles and for shifts in world production by beginning to shelter and support some sectors and industries. In an even greater departure from the Erhard tradition, the government became an instrument for the preservation of existing industries rather than a force for renewal. In the 1970s, the state assumed an ever more important role in the economy. During the 1980s, Chancellor Helmut Kohl tried to reduce that state role, and he succeeded in part, but German unification again compelled the German government to assume a stronger role in the economy. Thus, the contradiction between the terms "social" and "market" has remained an element for debate in Germany.

Given the internal contradiction in its philosophy, the German economy is both conservative and dynamic. It is conservative in the sense that it draws on the part of the German tradition that envisages some state role in the economy and a cautious attitude toward investment and risk-taking. It is dynamic in the sense that it is directed toward growth--even if that growth may be slow and steady rather than spectacular. It tries to combine the virtues of a market system with the virtues of a social welfare system.

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