Selectivity emerged as the core of a new social policy paradigm in Greece when a new ‘modernising’ government took office in 1996. Though it was adopted energetically, its real impact eventually proved negligible, except for an initial flutter of activity. The article argues that its failure as a recipe for welfare reform was inevitable. The nature of social protection arrangements in Greece severely constrained the scope for selectivity, while the particular version pursued was poorly designed and badly administered. Moreover, the elevation of selectivity to the status of a ‘Big Idea’ was an indirect cause of serious lateral damage: while fruitlessly puzzling over the place of selectivity in the ‘new social policy’, the government was losing the crucial battle on the reform of an unviable and inequitable pension system. The article concludes that selectivity has little relevance to the priorities for reform in a welfare state still struggling to cope with its Bismarckian, south European contradictions.