Piper’s world: Back then in Freiburg – economy

Party programs are often underestimated. It is true that politicians rarely translate them one-to-one into practical politics. But programs can absorb, condense and also change the zeitgeist. The Düsseldorf guiding principles of 1949, for example, marked the departure of the West German CDU from Christian socialism and its turn to a market economy that would soon be called the “social”. The SPD said goodbye to Marxism with its Godesberg program in 1959 and was thus able to become a modern reform party. By far the most ambitious of the German party programs comes from the FDP. The “Freiburg Theses”, which the party adopted 50 years ago, on October 27, 1971, in the town hall of Freiburg im Breisgau, created a theoretical basis for the social-liberal era. It began in 1969 when the SPD and FDP elected Willy Brandt as Chancellor. But the authors wanted even more: a new, “no longer just democratic, but at the same time social liberalism”. Even today one is amazed at what was possible with the FDP back then.

The intellectual father of the Freiburg theses was Karl-Hermann Flach. The left-liberal journalist – born in Königsberg in 1929 – began his political career in 1946 with the Liberal Democratic Party in the Soviet zone of occupation. When the GDR was founded in 1949, he fled to West Berlin, studied at the FU and in 1959 became federal manager of the FDP. Because it was too conservative for him, he withdrew from active party work in 1962 and became editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau, where he made it to the position of deputy editor-in-chief. Only when the FDP broke with the CDU did Flach get involved again with the Liberals. He wanted to loosen liberalism from its paralysis: “The liberals have to scrutinize every idea, every concept, every utopia, every law to see whether they really bring more freedom for more people in practice.” In 1971, Flach was elected General Secretary of the FDP.

The Freiburg theses were the first party program in the Federal Republic in which environmental protection appeared: “Environmental protection has priority over profit and personal benefit. Environmental damage is criminal injustice,” it said in one thesis. And in another: “The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights must include the right to an environment in the best possible condition.” This was all the more remarkable given that nothing was known about climate change in 1971. But everyone could see that nature was in danger. For example, Lake Constance was in acute danger of tipping over due to the large amount of wastewater.

Furthermore, the Liberals also called for extensive company and inter-company co-determination. The reason reads like a leaflet from the student movement: “Power of disposal over things and power over people require control through co-determination, which democratically counteracts alienation and external determination.” The program is likely to have contributed to the fact that in 1976 the Bundestag passed the (almost) equal co-determination of employees on supervisory boards with a large majority.

Private property is central to liberalism’s concept of man

By far the most interesting, however, are the Freiburg theses when it comes to property. Private property is central to the liberalist image of man: there can be no freedom without property. The FDP adds in Freiburg: Without widespread ownership, freedom remains incomplete. “The liberal reform of capitalism seeks to remove the imbalances of advantage and the concentration of economic power that result from the accumulation of money and property and the concentration of property in the means of production in a few hands,” it says in one thesis. Instead of the inefficient inheritance tax, an “estate tax” is intended to prevent wealth from becoming more and more concentrated over the generations.

The proposals for asset accumulation are very specific: “Private and public companies are obliged to grant participation rights to their asset growth from a certain value onwards.” In the case of corporations, these participation rights should consist of shares with voting rights; in the case of partnerships, they should consist of permanent bonds or other forms. A public clearing house should transfer the assets to investment companies. In German: The capitalists should have given up some of the power of disposal to the workers. And that from the FDP.

Nothing ever came of these plans. They were unpopular in business, but the unions were also not very interested in workers becoming small capitalists. The entrepreneur and social democrat Philip Rosenthal fought passionately for wealth creation. Because it was blocked again and again, Rosenthal resigned resignedly from the office of Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Economics in November 1971 – just one month after the Freiburg theses had been adopted. (These were replaced in 1977 by the much more conventional Kiel theses.)

It is not known whether wealth accumulation would have worked out the way Karl-Herman Flach envisioned it. Even so, it is exasperating that no one has ever made a serious attempt. Germany would talk differently about social inequality today if almost three generations of German citizens had had the chance to build up equity.

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