The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)

Translated by Joseph Coulthard (1854)


Means for the Preservation of the State Organism. Comletion of Theory

According to the plan I proposed to myself in a former chapter,[1]  I have now completed such portions of the whole inquiry as remained to be examined, and have, therefore, given as full and accurate a solution of the great question before us as my ability would allow. I might fairly conclude my task, then, at this point, were it not incumbent on me to refer, before doing so, to one final consideration, which is of the greatest importance as regards the whole subject; I allude to the means which are necessary, not only to render the activity of the State possible, but even to secure existence to the political power.

In order to accomplish even the most limited objects, it is evident that the State must be possessed of sufficient sources of revenue. My ignorance of all that is called finance prevents my entering here on an elaborate disquisition as regards that subject; but this is not to be regretted, seeing that such a discussion does not necessarily come within our present design. For, as I took occasion to observe in the outset, we are not supposing the case of a State whose objects are determined by the extent and efficiency of the means it may happen to possess, but rather that of one in which the latter are subordinate to and determined by the former. I have only to observe, for the sake of consistency, that it is no less our duty to regard, in financial arrangements also, the true end of man as member of the body politic, and the limitations naturally arising from such a connection. Even a moment’s reflection on the close interdependence that subsists between police and financial regulations is sufficient to convince us of this. There are then, it seems to me, but three sources of State revenue:—1. The property which has been previously reserved for the State, or subsequently acquired; 2. Direct taxation; 3. Indirect taxation. The possession of any State property is attended with injurious consequences. I have already shown that the State must, by its very nature, obtain a preponderating power compared with private individuals; and in becoming proprietor, it must necessarily become mixed up with many private relations, while it preserves all its peculiar attributes. Now, it is the necessity for security which alone dictates the expediency of a political organization. But this necessity does not presuppose any particular division of property, or any determination of proprietors; and yet the State, in becoming proprietor, will extend all that influence to its interests of property, which has been granted for wholly different purposes, and will thus be able to outweigh all private individuals in this respect. Indirect taxation likewise is not free from hurtful consequences. Experience teaches us what a multiplicity of institutions is required to arrange and levy them; and of all these, according to our previous reasoning, we must unhesitatingly disapprove. Direct taxation, then, is all that remains. Now, of all the possible systems of direct taxation, the physiocratical[2] is unquestionably the simplest. But, as it has been frequently objected, one of the most natural products of all is overlooked in such a system; I mean human power, which, with our institutions, is also a disposable commodity, both in its working and results, and must therefore be subject likewise to direct taxation. If, however, the system of direct taxation (to which we are reduced) is not unjustly condemned as the worst and clumsiest of all financial systems, we must not forget that the government, whose activity we have so narrowly circumscribed, does not stand in need of such abundant sources of revenue, and that the State which has no peculiar interest of its own, apart from those of its citizens, will be more certainly assured of support from a free and therefore prosperous nation.

As the administration of financial affairs may create obstacles to the practical application of the principles we have urged, this is still more to be feared as regards the internal arrangements of the political constitution. That is, some means must be provided to connect the governing and governed classes of the nation together,—to secure the former in the possession of the power confided to them, and the latter in the enjoyment of what freedom remains after this necessary deduction. Different methods have been adopted in different States for this purpose: in some, it has been sought to strengthen the physical power of the government (a plan somewhat perilous for freedom); in others, the accomplishment of this end has been attempted by bringing contending and counterbalancing forces into opposition; and in others, by diffusing throughout the nation a spirit favourable to the constitution. The last method we have mentioned, although often productive of beautiful results (as we notice more especially in antiquity), has too hurtful a tendency on the individual development of the citizen, too easily induces one-sidedness in the national character, and is therefore most foreign to the system we have proposed. According to this, we should rather look for a constitution which should have the least possible positive or special influence on the character of the citizens, and would fill their hearts with nothing but the deepest regard for the rights of others, combined with the most enthusiastic love for their own liberty. I shall not here attempt to discover which constitution may be supposed to resemble this most faithfully. Such an investigation belongs evidently to a strict theory of politics; and I shall content myself with a few brief considerations, which may serve to show more clearly the possibility of such a constitution. The system I have proposed tends to strengthen and multiply the private interests of the citizen, and it may therefore seem calculated in that way to weaken the public interest. But it interweaves the two so closely together, that the latter seems rather to be based on the former; and especially so appears to the citizen, who wishes to be at once secure and free. Thus then, with such a system, that love for the constitution might be most surely preserved, which it is so often vainly sought to cultivate in the hearts of the citizens by artificial means. In this case of a State, moreover, in which the sphere of action is so narrow and limited, a less degree of power is necessary, and this requires proportionately less defence. Lastly, it follows of course, that, as power and enjoyment are often to be sacrificed on both sides to secure given results, in order to protect both from a greater loss, the same necessary accommodations are to be supposed in the system we have propounded.

I have now succeeded, then, in answering the question I proposed myself, as far as my present powers would allow, and have traced out the sphere of political activity, and confined it within such limits as seemed to me most conducive and necessary to man’s highest interests. In this endeavour I have invariably set out with a view to discover what was best in the several cases; although it might not be uninteresting to ascertain what course was most strictly accordant with the principles of right. But when a State union has once proposed to itself a certain aim, and has voluntarily prescribed certain limits to its activity, those ends and limits are naturally in accordance with right, so long as they are such that those who defined them were adequate to their important task. Where such an express determination of ends and limits has not been made, the State must naturally endeavour to bring its activity within the sphere which abstract theory prescribes, but must also be guided by the consideration of such obstacles, as, if overlooked, would lead to far more hurtful consequences. The nation can always demand the adoption of such a theory, in so far as these obstacles render it practicable, but no further. I have not hitherto taken these obstacles into consideration, but have contented myself with developing the pure and abstract theory. I have in general aimed at discovering the most favourable position which man can occupy as member of a political community. And it has appeared to me to be, that in which the most manifold individuality and the most original independence subsisted, with the most various and intimate union of a number of men—a problem which nothing but the most absolute liberty can ever hope to solve. To point out the possibility of a political organization which should fall as little short of this end as possible, and bring man nearer to such a position, has been my strict design in these pages, and has for some time been the subject of all my thoughts and researches. I shall be satisfied to have shown that this principle should be, at least, the guiding one in all political constitutions, and the system which is based upon it the high ideal of the legislator.

These ideas might have been forcibly illustrated by historical and statistical considerations, if both were directed to this end. On the whole there seems to me to be much need of reform in statistical science. Instead of giving us the mere data of area, population, wealth, and industry in a State, from which its real condition can never be fully and accurately determined, it should proceed from a consideration of the real state of the country and its inhabitants, and endeavour to convey the extent and nature of their active, passive, and enjoying powers, with such gradual modifications as these receive, either from the force of national union, or from the influence of the political organization. For the State constitution and the national union, however closely they may be interwoven with each other, should not be confounded together. While the State constitution, by the force of law, or custom, or its own preponderating power, imparts a definite relation to the citizens, there is still another which is wholly distinct from this—chosen of their own free-will, infinitely various, and in its nature ever-changing. And it is strictly this last,—the mutual freedom of activity among all the members of the nation,—which secures all those benefits for which men longed when they formed themselves into a society. The State constitution itself is strictly subordinate to this, as to the end for which it was chosen as a necessary means; and, since it is always attended with restrictions in freedom, as a necessary evil.

It has, therefore, been my secondary design in these pages to point out the fatal consequences which flow for human enjoyment, power, and character, from confounding the free activity of the nation with that which is enforced upon its members by the political constitution.



[1] Chapter IX.

[2] According to this system, agriculture alone gives a clear profit or surplus over the yearly expenditure and original outlay, such as the cost of clearing, etc. Hence, agriculturists alone constitute the productive class; the other industrial classes are not productive; and between these come the landowners: the productive class creates the means of subsistence for the others and the material of their labour, and hence retains them in its service, as it were, for board and wages. Hence it follows that all impediments should be removed from agriculture, but also from industry and commerce, since in this way the unproductive expenditure is lessened and commodities become cheaper. In order, then, not to disturb industry and activity, the pure products alone should be taxed, and there should be but one tax, and that upon the land. See Quesnay’s ‘Tableau Economique,’ 1758; Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations,’ passim; Hume’s ‘Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects,’ London, 1753, vol. iv. p. 8, etc.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals