The secret to Germany’s happiness and success: Its values are the opposite of Silicon Valley’s

girl doing cartwheel
girl doing cartwheel
Image: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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If Silicon Valley ever formed a political party, it might look a lot like the current iteration of Germany’s Free Democrats, or FDP. In the 2017 election cycle, the FDP offered a platform that reads like what Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg would come up with if they decided to disrupt Rand Paul. Its primary aspirations include creating a startup-friendly economy, digitizing Germany’s monolithic reams of bureaucratic paperwork (no small feat), and, yes, radically reduce income taxes, which currently top off at 45% for the highest earners.

The platform has propelled the party back from the dead. Having been kicked out of the Germany’s parliament, or Bundestag, in 2013, the FDP came roaring back with 10% of the vote in Sunday’s election.

To some, this might suggest that a cultural shift is afoot in Germany. After all, the FDP’s leader, a magnetic 38-year-old named Christian Lindner, has openly expressed a desire to shake things up. In an August interview with the Economist, in which he called Germany’s economy “a prosperity hallucination,” Lindner also explained that in his country, “entrepreneurship has long been undervalued … and societies that are prepared to be more daring and have efficient capital markets have overtaken us on this.” Germans could be “world leaders” in the new economy, he said, “but we have to want it.”

But that’s the thing: The vast majority of Germans don’t want it. For progressive and even centrist Germans, the startup-style definition of Erfolg (or “success”) is utterly incompatible with their values—which do not center on individual wealth, recognition, or even careers. Though the FDP’s showing was meteoric compared with recent years, Germany’s cultural mores—which include a vehement defense of the country’s robust social safety net, largely credited for the relatively quick recovery from last decade’s recession—mean it is largely inoculated from the bootstrap fever that has long gripped the US.

Both the FDP’s renaissance—as well the scorn of its detractors, which we’ll get to in a second—are the doing of Lindner, who has inspired such descriptors as “charismatic,” “feisty,” “edgy,” “snarky,” and, not least of all, “camera-friendly.” He is a tight-pantsed, Teutonic Ayn Rand who won hearts and ballots with a series of campaign posters that literally consisted of black-and-white photos of him staring at his phone.

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But he wasn’t a household political name until an improvised 2015 tirade in front of the state legislature of Nordrhein-Westfalen went viral.

In an off-script response to a heckler during a speech about startup culture’s positive attitude toward failure, Lindner memorably decried the fact that “people would rather go into public service than start something themselves.” He explained that, “when you’re successful, you end up in the sights of the social-democratic redistribution apparatus, and when you fail you’re sure to be the subject of mockery and derision.”

Lindner was correct on one point: Many Germans would rather go into public service than start a business themselves. But his theory about their motivation is all wrong. Lindner’s country-people simply don’t have the same enchantment with self-made financial success that he does.

To most of Germany, the hagiography of bootstrap capitalism is not just morally wrong; it’s incomprehensible. Thanks in part to a general leftward tilt on economic issues after the student revolutions of 1968, most of them view the collective good, and the comparatively high taxation that accompanies it not as a sacrifice, but as a fundamental component of civilized society.

It’s not just the social contract that compels Germans to wrinkle their tanned noses at the FDP’s entrepreneurial fervor. They are largely content with their take-home salaries, but not out of altruism. Rather, they view the role of wealth acquisition and consumerism in a fundamentally different way.

To Germans, caution and frugality are signifiers of great moral character. Sure, they favor high-quality consumer goods—but they deliberate on what to buy for years, and expect their possessions to last for decades, from Birkenstocks to $7,000 Miele ovens to Mercedes sedans. Yes, Germany has its super-rich citizens. But most of them, such as the late Albrecht brothers of the Aldi grocery empire, are notoriously reclusive—perhaps because extreme wealth is considered tacky.

Moreover, for Germans, a good work-life balance does not involve unlimited massages and free meals on the corporate campus to encourage 90-hour weeks. Germans not only work 35 hours a week on average—they’re the kind of people who might decide to commute by swimming, simply because it brings them joy. And a German wouldn’t be caught tot pounding down a bar or a glass of Soylent to replace a meal—a ritual that even on workdays takes two hours to consume al fresco over a book or an impassioned conversation, and is available at a neighborhood cafe for a reasonable price.

In other words, Germany is full of happy (albeit outwardly frowning) shoe salespeople and grocery-store cashiers who have completed 18-month training courses for those professions. They earn a decent salary with full benefits—including at least six federally mandated weeks of their beloved Urlaub, or vacation, which, by the way, is the institution they approach with the kind of devotion Americans afford their jobs.

And so, just as Christian Lindner is obsessed with making money and driving sports cars, so have Germans been obsessed with making fun of Christian Lindner because they find his thirst for financial success so gauche. As such, this election season’s funniest moments came courtesy of the #thermilinder memes, which imagined the chiseled politician as an infomerical hawker of the beloved Thermomix, the wildly expensive appliance miracle that unsurprisingly graces many of Germany’s kitchen counters (and, yes, is expected to last until at least 2060, and if one doesn’t, you can be assured its owner possesses the warranty card, and will be writing a strongly worded letter of disappointment to the manufacturer). Germans may enjoy technology in their homes, but most of them still aren’t buying what Lindner is selling.

In the aftermath of the election, many Germans are aghast at the advances of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, which won third place with 13% of the vote. Indeed, some are taking to the streets in protest of that party’s goals, which defile the cultural values Germans have struggled to build out of the rubble of the Second World War.

But Germans also have good reason to be wary of the FDP, because the techno-libertarian ethos both perpetuates Germany’s worsening income inequality and disregards the public good. This disregard is profoundly offensive to Germans. But it certainly does look handsome on posters.