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Structural framework > State

The Federal Republic of Germany as a "social state"

The term “social state” has both a normative and a descriptive element:

  • Used as a normative term, “social state” designates a state based on social justice as a constitutionally enshrined goal (Basic Law):
    • “The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state.” (Article 20 [1] Basic Law)
    • “The constitutional order in the Länder must conform to the principles of a republican, democratic and social state governed by the rule of law within the meaning of this Basic Law.” (Article 28 [1] Basic Law)
  • As a descriptive term, “social state” refers to the structures arising from this normative basis and the extent of public measures and programmes to realise greater social justice (social security and social balance).


The idea of the "social state" goes back to "the social question" of the 19th century and the creation of a regulatory principle to counter the social consequences of the liberal-capitalist economic system. The goal of the social state principle was to put in place the practical conditions for making civil liberties a reality for every individual.

To this day, constitutional debate remains preoccupied with the charged relationship between individual civil liberties and social rights.

Civil liberties (rule of law principle) have traditionally been enshrined in all national constitutions of European countries to a much greater extent than social rights (social state principle). In contrast to some other European constitutions, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz/GG) contains barely any provisions on fundamental social rights and limits itself to establishing the social state principle as a state objective. Thus, it is mainly the job of the lawmakers to flesh out this obligation, overseen by the highest court in Germany (Federal Constitutional Court).

The social state as we know it today is formalised in a variety of statutory regulations, key of which are the 13 Books of the Social Code (SGB I–SGB XII and SGB XIV), each dedicated to a specific area of law – from material security to health insurance and long-term care insurance, to child and youth services (SGB VIII). Other regulation further serves the social state principle and includes the rights of employees to protection and codetermination, as well as the social security systems and elements of tax and economic policy.

Social benefits (e.g., child and youth services, social welfare) are financed partly from the public purse, partly from social security funds (see 1.2.6 and 1.3.3) and partly by non-statutory organisations (e.g., from donations, church taxes, lottery funding). The social insurances are there to mitigate the typical risks people face in life (unemployment, disease, accident, old age, long-term care). In most cases, employers and employees share the contributions.

The development of the social state is accompanied by a fundamental debate on the "social state crisis" that revolves mainly around the ability to finance rising social benefits and their effects on the economy, as well as the precarious balance between social welfare and the personal responsibility of the people. Against this backdrop, since the turn of the millennium attempts have been made to foment a shift in social policy towards greater personal responsibility of the people under the idea of an "activating social state" (in line with the "support and demand" principle).

Further reading
  • Butterwegge, Christoph (2018): Krise und Zukunft des Sozialstaates. 6th edition, Wiesbaden.
  • Krapf, Manfred (2019): Der deutsche Sozialstaat seit der Jahrhundertwende. Darmstadt.
  • Schmidt, Manfred G. (2012): Der deutsche Sozialstaat – Geschichte und Gegenwart. Munich.
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