Leviathan Wobbles and Wavers—But the Citizens are Ultimately Responsible for It

Drunk with the theft of functions, and with the presumption of competence, the German Leviathan staggers listlessly through the turning of the years. Leviathan’s capacity for self-direction and his problem-solving skills often seem so limited that the misshapen and increasingly drunken giant is sometimes unable even to tie his own shoes.

But should the citizens who feed Leviathan want to cut Leviathan’s meals to normal portions, so that Leviathan slims down and can once again devote himself more agilely to performing his duties for the citizens, Leviathan—quick as a flash and awakening from his immobility—lashes out to prevent the cutting of even the smallest morsel of sugar.

The Population’s Sinking Trust in the State and the Civil Service

It is therefore not surprising that citizens in Germany are increasingly noticing a growing gap between the bloating of the state apparatus and the lack of task fulfillment and problem solving. According to a Forsa survey conducted in July 2022 on behalf of the German Civil Service Federation (dbb), 66 percent of German citizens believe that the state is overburdened in terms of its tasks and problems, and only 29 percent believe that the German state would be capable of achieving its goals.[1]

In addition, 46 percent of the citizens surveyed believe that the performance of the civil service has declined compared to recent years.[2] And in the occupational ranking, which is used to ask about the reputation of occupations among the population, civil servants are rather far down the list. Politicians and insurance agents have an even worse reputation than civil servants, while firefighters, doctors, judges, and entrepreneurs, for example, have a higher reputation.[3]

Many citizens therefore increasingly have the uneasy feeling that not only the size of the entire state apparatus might be negatively correlated with its output, but also that the size of the Bundestag is negatively correlated with the resolution of problems.

Undoubtedly, it is a task of politics to close the growing gap between the size of the state apparatus and the lack of task completion and problem solving through suitable laws as well as rules and regulatory systems. The German Bundestag, however, often already fails to make rule changes for its own concerns and organizational size. The German Bundestag is the second largest parliament in the world. Only China’s National People’s Congress is larger.

But for years, the German Bundestag has been incapable of passing a viable mandate-limiting electoral reform that is constitutional and does not violate the principle of personalized proportional representation. At the same time, more and more crises are erupting in Germany because of problems whose solution has been delayed for years.

Ignoring the Complexity and Contingency of Modern Society

Many citizens therefore increasingly have the uneasy feeling that not only the size of the entire state apparatus might be negatively correlated with its output, but also that the size of the Bundestag is negatively correlated with the resolution of problems. Sometimes, then, there is whimsical talk of the “complete idiots in Berlin,” without, however, asking which “idiots”—Greek idiotes means private people in the sense Aristotle used it—sent these “complete idiots” to Berlin.

But this question is not intended to attribute the causes of Leviathan’s wavering and vacillation solely to principal-agent theory or public choice theory or Mancur Olson’s logic of collective action, although these theories certainly have explanatory value. What is at stake is much more fundamental. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk wrote as early as 1995 about the “crises of disgust with the political classes” in Western societies:

Probably hidden in the general shaking of heads at the inadequacies of political figures is a global malaise that has not yet fully manifested itself… For what strikes troubled contemporaries about so many politicians—that they so rarely seem on top of global challenges—applies with greater justification to non-politicians to the same extent. One should consider whether the chronic scolding against the political class is not the projection of an uneasiness in global culture that is only materialized in political celebrity. A new type of subtle vulgarity becomes visible in the latter, which immerses all those affected, spectators and actors alike, in a common embarrassment: excesses on the open stage, cluelessness in public service, the disorientation of leaders, pallor in the limelight. In our country, confusion sits in the front row.[4]

The pause for reflection on fundamental questions, which Peter Sloterdijk had urged in 1995 so that a constitutional debate would turn into an investigation of global structure, does not seem to have taken place. Instead, one fell into the main errors of constructivism and ignored the structural conditions of modern society. Despite the enormous complexity and contingency of the global world, no one wanted to admit their own limited cognitive capacity and knowledge.

Political Fantasies of Omnipotence and Constitutional Ignorance

As regards regulatory policy, institutional designs did not therefore take people’s constitutional ignorance into account. Those involved were obviously blinded by fantasies of omnipotence, keeping them from limiting excessive demands in the first place, which only succeeds if one admits in advance that the demands are excessive and admits constitutional ignorance in the face of increased complexity and contingency. “The ‘state-athletics’ of globalism is still unwritten,” Sloterdijk wrote in 1995:

This situation demands forms of consciousness that are firmly entrenched in the abyss of the generic paradox. Profession: politician. Main residence: obscurity. Program: Belonging together alongside those with whom belonging together is difficult. Morality: small-scale work from overcharges. Passion: having a relationship with the disproportionate. Career: self-recruitment from insight that turns into initiative. Such “politicians” would have to see themselves first and foremost as athletes of a new type: as athletes of the synchronous world, as high-performance souls in the matter of coexistence. How do I coexist with 1.2 billion Chinese? Any answer to this question is permissible, except the old small-world maxim: forget about the Chinese.[5]

Today, China in particular poses a pressing problem that was forgotten or not perceived as such by politicians until a few years ago. But would this problem and the increasing political-system conflict between China and the West have been put on the political agenda earlier if there had been other structures and institutions? If there had been a national security council or other new state bodies in Germany in addition to the German Bundestag, universities, institutes, etc.? Or would new state expert bodies simply further inflate the state apparatus and further increase the gap between its size and output?

General, Abstract Rules Instead of Ad Hoc Commands and Orders

And this brings us to the actual point: ultimately, we do not need new state institutions, but rather people in the existing state institutions who act responsibly.[6] This means that we need civil servants and politicians who, especially in view of the increased complexity and contingency under the conditions of modern globalization, consider the constitutional ignorance of human beings in the design of institutions, in particular as it regards rules and regulatory systems.

It is up to citizens to take responsibility and demand accountability from their politicians and public servants.

Complex systems cannot be controlled by commands and orders, but only by general and abstract rules. Commands and orders destroy the functionality of complex systems. On the one hand, the commanders are therefore overextended from the outset and pull out of the affair by denying any responsibility. Then others are mostly to blame. Their own failures are suppressed until nobody even notices them anymore. On the other hand, citizens are frustrated by the often-protracted problems and turn against those in command or even against the system in general. Society thus becomes increasingly polarized.[7]

Citizens themselves, however, are causally to blame for this misery because they demand that politicians and administrators issue orders and directives to solve complex problems instead of demanding compliance with general and abstract rules. It is up to citizens to take responsibility and demand accountability from their politicians and state officials, even if the terrain is confusing due to complexity and increased contingency. If the citizenry does not find its own way to regulatory thinking and demand regulatory action, then only a minority of politicians and civil servants will act in a regulatory manner. In other words, we currently have the politicians we deserve.



[1] See, forsa Gesellschaft für Sozialforschung und statistische Analysen mbH: “dbb Bürgerbefragung ‘Öffentlicher Dienst’ 2022, Der öffentliche Dienst aus Sicht der Bevölkerung” (August 18, 2022), 4.

[2] See, ibid., 7.

[3] See, ibid., 13.

[4] Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot. Versuch über die Hyperpolitik, 1st edition (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1995),  54 – 55.

[5] Ibid., 55 – 56.

[6] See, Thomas Mayer, “Verantwortlichkeit, Kommentar zu Gesellschaft und Finanzen des Flossbach,Flossbach von Storch Research Institute (December 2, 2022).

[7] See, for example, Norbert F. Tofall, “Polarisierung durch Problemverschleppung, Kommentar zu Wirtschaft und Politik des Flossbach,” Flossbach von Storch Research Institute (February 5, 2016).


This article first appeared on the Flossbach von Storch Research Institute website under the title “Leviathan wankt und schwankt.” With kind permission.

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