Edmund Stoiber, chairman of the Christian Social Union in Germany, threw recently the country's mostly completed coalition negotiations into disarray by announcing he would not join the cabinet of Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor-to-be. In so doing, he gave the world a refresher course on the enduring opacity of German democratic politics. If Mr Stoiber really wanted to remain minister-president of Bavaria, as he now says, why did he quit that job and prevail on Ms Merkel to make him a super-minister for economics, a job he now says he does not want? That is only one of the ambiguities. Why did Mr Stoiber, an ardent partisan, claim to have based his decision on the Social Democrats' choice of cabinet members? Even Mr Stoiber's party colleagues could not explain his thought process.
Part of what makes German politics so hard to read is the absence of an element present in virtually all western democracies: a body of publicly debated, right-of-centre doctrine. Whether that means the right-liberal politics of Baroness Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, or the hybrid ideology of George W. Bush, Germany does not have it. It is easy to point to Mr Stoiber's mix of Catholic social values and corporatism but harder to say whether his departure shifts Ms Merkel's government "right" or "left", or alters nothing. German politicians do not talk that way. So Mr Stoiber's departure looks personal, and arbitrary.
But things are changing. After 60 years of democracy, and new pressures from the September 11 2001 attacks on the US and its own imploding welfare state, Germany is beginning to develop a constructive conservatism that can shape political debate. Lately, the country's two leading weeklies, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, ran lengthy interviews with Udo di Fabio. Mr Di Fabio is an American-style success story. He grew up in an Italian immigrant family and became a judge on the Bundesverfassungsgericht, Germany's highest court. Until a few weeks ago, he was best known for the legal opinion that gave a constitutional green light to Gerhard Schröder's decision last spring to dissolve parliament and call elections.
Now he has written an American-style book. The Culture of Freedom (Die Kultur der Freiheit, C. H. Beck) chides Germans -- and westerners in general -- for embracing a specious idea of personal freedom that has actually made them less free. He seeks to rally them to a "new bourgeois age". The book can be compared to Charles Murray's Losing Ground (1984) or Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which violated a set of social-democratic taboos and helped win over a politically disorientated middle class to conservatism and the Republican party.
Mr Di Fabio is nonpartisan. But he is just as keen to reintroduce "values" into German political discourse. At times his targets resemble those of US polemicists: the way welfare bureaucracies usurp the role of more flexible social structures such as families; high-handed court rulings; and the conformity of academic sociologists and philosophers in all countries. who reftexively over the value of freedom.
But Mr Di Fabio's book is more impressive than its American antecedents, partly because he has bigger fish to fry. The unreformed European welfare states labour under a double burden. On top of their inefficiency, conditions for reform are less propitious today than at the time of Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. Native populations are ageing and demoralised and face challenges from large blocs of newcomers from different cultures. Mr Di Fabio deals squarely with these problems without ever sounding embittered or xenophobic. On the contrary. Why, he asks, "should a member of a vital world culture want to integrate into western culture, when western culture, which at least in his view is not producing enough offspring and no longer has any transcendental idea, is approaching its historical end?"
But the book is also superior to its predecessors in its subtlety. Mr Di Fabio conducts a blistering argument without alienating the reader, thanks to his deployment of the concept of "reciprocity". That is, he does not fault modern citizens for maximising individual freedom. He merely shows that freedom is always embedded in relationships. It has little meaning outside a large set of sociological (mostly bourgeois) conventions. If people pursue freedom in ways that damage the institutions through which it thrives (by, say, vacationing instead of having enough children to assure the continuation of society), paradoxes result. New freedoms bring new dependencies. Getting rid of "good manners" is more likely to foster bossy bureaucracies than it is to purge hypocrisies. And agitating for equality can produce its opposite. Granting rights to groups rather than individuals "opens the gates to a new Middle Ages, in which the model is not the human individual but the harmonious ordering of groups".
Mr Di Fabio insists the roots of western equality lie in the Christian understanding of man as made in the image of God. He doubts that the "technical" achievements of western republics (parliaments, laws, constitutions) are more important than their cultural assumptions. But he couches the debate in the postwar intellectual idiom of "recognition theory" and respect-for-the-other, drawing on the pragmatism of Jürgen Habermas and the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. His argument is not always new, nor is it meant to be. It will be new enough to Germany's vast leisure class.
Abandoning whatever smacks of "traditional German values", as has been the tendency since at least the 1960s, will not safeguard Germany from the sins of its (or anyone else's) past. At a time when Germany must move right to solve its problems, this is an important and revolutionary message -- and not just for Germany.