By Tilo Graser

[This article published in: Junge Welt, 12/3/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The increasing demand for more personal responsibility given the situation of the social security system “is the attempt to reduce the social state and dismantle solidarity in society.” The catholic social ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach voiced this criticism at the fall forum of the Economic and Socioeconomic Institute (WSI) of the Hans Bockler foundation in Berlin. “The Social State between Personal Responsibility and Solidarity” was the theme of the two-day conference.

This demand of personal responsibility was only directed at social groups like dependent employees, the unemployed and single parents, not managers, owners of assets or the German government, Hengsbach said. This demonstrates the “distorted situation” of this “hegemonial discourse of those who do not need the social state,” the social ethicist of the Oswald-von-Nell-Breuning Institute emphasized. “They reproach those who need it of being guilty in their situation through their own lapses.” Accompanying this debate, social risks – like unemployment, sickness or being of the feminine gender – could be increasingly privatized, Hengsbach argued. A private exchange relation now replaces the legal claim of citizens that the social state should support them when they fall into distress.

The situation in the area of health care is an example of this development. “Social solidarity with the sick is eroding,” Thomas Gerlinger, director of the Institute of Medical Sociology at the University of Frankfurt declared at a press conference during the event. The sickness risk is increasingly privatized. Burdens for the insured and patients increase while businesses are simultaneously relieved.

The medical sociologist moderated one of the three study groups of the forum in the area Health and Care and summarized the results of the discussion. Gerlinger criticized the debate around personal responsibility since this was too one-sidedly economic. He turned against the argument that a stronger private involvement of the insured in the costs of the health system activates their efforts at prevention. “There are too many factors not influenced by individuals,” the scholar stressed. The social situation, work environment, circumstances of life and available individual resources like income counted.

In the health system, personal responsibility also means a strengthening of patient rights and better prevention, Gerlinger emphasized. When responsible conduct is demanded of individuals, society must organize circumstances that make possible responsible conduct. “People cannot adequately provide for themselves alone,” said Ute Klammer, representative of the study group Old-Age Pensions…

For Bernd Reissert, sociologist from Berlin and moderator of the forum’s study group on unemployment insurance, the appeal to personal responsibility has a “coercive character.” This demand is joined with threatened control and sanctions. This is “counter-productive,” Reissert said and referred to studies in other countries…

“The solidarian security from risks is the prerequisite for personal responsibility,” Reissert summarized the discussion of the study group. People are ready to accept risks when they are secured. The social security systems in Germany are not organized for this but are excessively coupled to paid work, the sociologist criticized. Instead of unemployment insurance, he urged a paid work insurance that secures more than unemployment and must be financed by all kinds of income and taxes.

The social state security systems should be uncoupled from paid work. Hengsbach sees this as the solution. All kinds of income must contribute. This is part of solidarity within society, the social ethicist said.