Public Goods and Prosperity Conflicts

For a New Sociology of the Welfare State

This research project, carried out in collaboration with the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut Göttingen [Sociological Research Institute Göttingen] (SOFI) from 2012 to 2014 at the University of Göttingen, examined public goods from two different perspectives: as normative principles of societal design and as selective structures of social order.

The results confirmed, first of all, that public goods play a key role in the capacity of social actors to take action. This applies to the presence of technical and social infrastructure, the benefits of communal services, and the existence of a functioning administration. Clean water, universally available electricity, a transparent administrative system, and the certainty that individuals can move safely in public spaces―these things cannot be taken for granted on a global scale.

Second, the project showed that social actors themselves―be they teachers and nursing staff, technicians and administrators, security forces and supply personnel, or citizens doing volunteer work for associations, churches, and interest groups―are important as the persons who bear responsibility for and shape public goods, bringing them to life. All of them create public goods through their commitment and professional activities, and in doing so make a decisive contribution to the foundations of a democratic community and to social cohesion. Infrastructure, administration, and services rely not only on an abstract legal order; they are also supported by the normative consensus of those who use them and especially by those who shape and breathe life into them. The current energy transition in many industrial nations is a good example of this.

Third, the project demonstrated that public goods are the focus of new prosperity conflicts that gain in importance when national and municipal resources become scarce. Their distribution becomes problematic in times of shrinking growth. The issues involved concern distribution and classification struggles, the common good and special interests, as well as privileges and burdens. Public goods are not only an expression of a willingness to compensate for inequalities in society; they are also a matter of conflict between those who push for changes or bear them, who endure or accept them, and who inhibit or block them.

This research project, carried out in collaboration with the Soziologisches Forschungsinstitut Göttingen [Sociological Research Institute Göttingen] (SOFI) from 2012 to 2014 at the University of Göttingen, examined public goods from two different perspectives: as normative principles of societal design and as selective structures of social order.

The results confirmed, first of all, that public goods play a key role in the capacity of social actors to take action. This applies to the presence of technical and social infrastructure, the benefits of communal services, and the existence of a functioning administration. Clean water, universally available electricity, a transparent administrative system, and the certainty that individuals can move safely in public spaces―these things cannot be taken for granted on a global scale.

Second, the project showed that social actors themselves―be they teachers and nursing staff, technicians and administrators, security forces and supply personnel, or citizens doing volunteer work for associations, churches, and interest groups―are important as the persons who bear responsibility for and shape public goods, bringing them to life. All of them create public goods through their commitment and professional activities, and in doing so make a decisive contribution to the foundations of a democratic community and to social cohesion. Infrastructure, administration, and services rely not only on an abstract legal order; they are also supported by the normative consensus of those who use them and especially by those who shape and breathe life into them. The current energy transition in many industrial nations is a good example of this.

Third, the project demonstrated that public goods are the focus of new prosperity conflicts that gain in importance when national and municipal resources become scarce. Their distribution becomes problematic in times of shrinking growth. The issues involved concern distribution and classification struggles, the common good and special interests, as well as privileges and burdens. Public goods are not only an expression of a willingness to compensate for inequalities in society; they are also a matter of conflict between those who push for changes or bear them, who endure or accept them, and who inhibit or block them.