‘Germans are getting poorer’ – under this title, the news magazine Der Spiegel published a series of articles in the summer of 1982, shortly before the fall of the social-liberal coalition government. The author, Renate Merklein, took issue with the fiscal policies of the Brandt and Schmidt administrations. According to Merklein, these policies were based on the ‘belief ’ that the state ‘could do and know everything better, that it knew what was best for its citizens – even better than they themselves –, and that it was also capable of getting everything that was wished for, promptly and inexpensively’. The controversial journalist thus reproached a wasting of public funds that she traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. In these two decades, it had often been debated whether there should be ‘more state’ or not; at the same time, public expenditures and state responsibilities had increased slowly at first, then accelerated. Growing deficits, more lending and increasing public debt were the consequences. Did the Federal Republic sink into a ‘swirl of exorbitance’, or was this development part of a trend among states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)?
Beginning in the late 1950s, politicians, scholars and the general public intensely discussed what role the state should play in economics and society. These debates were framed by an international context that included the ‘liberal consensus’ in the United States of America, the Planification in France, the initiatives of the Labour government in Great Britain, and first attempts to harmonize economic and fiscal policies in the European Economic Community. With the popular phrases ‘public poverty’ and ‘private wealth’, the American economist John K. Galbraith caught the mood of the times. Moreover, his argument found resonance across the political spectrum. After the Social Democratic Party (SPD) gave up its Marxist traditions and its ideas of planned economy in the Godesberg Program of 1959, the SPD and its related unions pleaded for a globally regulated market economy that would delegate many tasks to the state.