The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)


On the Solicitude of the State for the Positive Welfare of the Citizen

Keeping in view the conclusions arrived at in the last chapter, we might embody in a general formula our idea of State agency when restricted to its just limits, and define its objects as all that a government could accomplish for the common weal, without departing from the principle just established; while, from this position, we could proceed to derive the still stricter limitation, that any State interference in private affairs, not directly implying violence done to individual rights, should be absolutely condemned. It will be necessary, however, to examine in succession the different departments of a State’s usual or possible activity, before we can circumscribe its sphere more positively, and arrive at a full solution of the question proposed.

A State, then, has one of two ends in view; it designs either to promote happiness, or simply to prevent evil; and in this latter case, the evil which arises from natural causes, or that which springs from man’s disregard for his neighbour’s rights. If it restricts its solicitude to the second of these objects, it aims merely at security; and I would here oppose this term security to every other possible end of State agency, and comprise these last under the general head of Positive Welfare. Further, the various means adopted by a State, as subservient to its purposes, affect in very different measure the extension of its activity. It may endeavour, for instance, to secure the accomplishment of these immediately, either with the aid of coercion or by the inducements of example and exhortation; or it may combine all these sources of influence in the attempt to shape the citizen’s outward life in accordance with its ends, and forestal actions contrary to its intention; or, lastly, it may try to exercise a sway over his thoughts and feelings, so as to bring his inclinations, even, into conformity with its wishes. It will be evident, that it is single actions only that come under political supervision in the first of these cases; that this is extended in the second to the general conduct of life; and that, in the last instance we have supposed, it is the very character of the citizen, his views, and modes of thought, which are brought under the influence of State control. The actual working of this restrictive agency, moreover, is clearly least considerable in the first of these cases, more so in the second, and is most effective and apparent in the last; either because, in this, it reaches the most copious sources of action, or that the very possibility of such an influence presupposes a greater multiplicity of institutions. But however seemingly different the departments of political action to which they respectively belong, we shall scarcely find any one institution which is not more or less intimately interwoven, in its objects or its consequences, with several of these. We have but to notice, by way of illustration, the close interdependence that exists between the promotion of welfare and the maintenance of security; and further, to remember that when any influence affecting single actions only, engenders a habit through the force of repetition, it comes ultimately to modify the character itself. Hence, in view of this interdependence of political institutions, it becomes very difficult to discover a systematic division of the whole subject before us, sufficiently correspondent to the course of our present inquiry. But, in any case, it will be most immediately conducive to our design, to examine in the outset whether the State should extend its solicitude to the positive welfare of the nation, or content itself with provisions for its security; and, confining our view of institutions to what is strictly essential either in their objects or consequences, to ascertain next, as regards both of these aims, the nature of the means that may be safely left open to the State for accomplishing them.

I am speaking here, then, of the entire efforts of the State to elevate the positive welfare of the nation; of its solicitude for the population of the country, and the subsistence of its inhabitants, whether manifested directly in such institutions as poor-laws, or indirectly, in the encouragement of agriculture, industry, and commerce; of all regulations relative to finance and currency, imports and exports, etc. (in so far as these have this positive welfare in view); finally, of all measures employed to remedy or prevent natural devastations, and, in short, of every political institution designed to preserve or augment the physical welfare of the nation. For the moral welfare is not in general regarded so much for its own sake, as with reference to its bearing on security, and will therefore be more appropriately introduced in the subsequent course of the inquiry.

Now all such institutions, I maintain, are positively hurtful in their consequences, and wholly irreconcilable with a true system of polity; a system which, although conceivable only from the loftiest points of view, is yet in no way inconsistent with the limits and capacities of human nature.

1. A spirit of governing predominates in every institution of this kind; and however wise and salutary such a spirit may be, it invariably superinduces national uniformity, and a constrained and unnatural manner of action. Instead of men grouping themselves into communities in order to discipline and develope their powers, even though, to secure these benefits, they should forego a portion of their exclusive possessions and enjoyments; it is only by the actual sacrifice of those powers that they can purchase in this case the privileges resulting from association. The very variety arising from the union of numbers of individuals is the highest good which social life can confer, and this variety is undoubtedly merged into uniformity in proportion to the measure of State interference. Under such a system, it is not so much the individual members of a nation living united in the bonds of a civil compact; but isolated subjects living in a relation to the State, or rather to the spirit which prevails in its government,—a relation in which the undue preponderance of the State element tends already to fetter the free play of individual energies. Like causes produce like effects; and hence, in proportion as State co-operation increases in extent and efficiency, a common resemblance diffuses itself, not only through all the agents to which it is applied, but through all the results of their activity. And this is the very design which States have in view. They desire nothing so much as comfort, ease, tranquillity; and these are most readily secured when there is little or no discordancy among that which is individual. But that to which man’s energies are ever urging him, and towards which he must ceaselessly direct his efforts, is the very reverse of this inertness and uniformity,—it is variety and activity. It is to these alone we are to look for the free development of character in all its vigorous and multiform diversity of phase and manifestation; and, to appeal to the inner motive of the individual man, there can be no one, surely, so far sunk and degraded, as to prefer, for himself personally, comfort and enjoyment to greatness; and he who draws conclusions for such a preference in the case of others, may justly be suspected of misconceiving the essential nobleness of human nature, and of agreeing to transform his fellow-creatures into mere machines.

2. Further, a second hurtful consequence ascribable to such a policy is, that these positive institutions tend to weaken the power and resources of the nation. For as the substance is annihilated by the form which is externally imposed upon it, so does it gain greater richness and beauty from that which is internally superinduced by its own spontaneous action; and in the case under consideration it is the form which annihilates the substance,—that which is of itself non-existent suppressing and destroying that which really is existent. The grand characteristic of human nature is organization. Whatever is to ripen in its soil and expand into a fair maturity, must first have existed therein as the little germ. Every manifestation of power presupposes the existence of enthusiasm; and but few things sufficiently cherish enthusiasm as to represent its object as a present or future possession. Now man never regards that which he possesses as so much his own, as that which he does; and the labourer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits. It may be, such reasoning appears too general to admit of any practical application. Perhaps it seems even as though the extension of so many branches of science, which we owe chiefly to political institutions (for the State only can attempt experiments on a scale sufficiently vast), contributed to raise the power of intellect, and collaterally, our culture and character in general. But the intellectual faculties themselves are not necessarily ennobled by every acquisition to our knowledge; and though it were granted that these means virtually effected such a result, it does not so much apply to the entire nation, as to that particular portion of it which is connected with the government. The cultivation of the understanding, as of any other of man’s faculties, is in general effected by his own activity, his own ingenuity, or his own methods of availing himself of the facilities discovered by others. Now, State measures always imply more or less positive control; and even where they are not chargeable with actual coercion, they accustom men to look for instruction, guidance, and assistance from without, rather than to rely upon their own expedients. The only method of instruction, perhaps, of which the State can avail itself, consists in its declaring the best course to be pursued as though it were the result of its investigations, and in enjoining this in some way on the citizen. But, however it may accomplish this,—whether directly or indirectly by law, or by means of its authority, rewards, and other encouragements attractive to the citizen, or, lastly, by merely recommending its propositions to his attention by arguments,—it will always deviate very far from the best system of instruction. For this unquestionably consists in proposing, as it were, all possible solutions of the problem in question, so that the citizen may select, according to his own judgment, the course which seems to him to be the most appropriate; or, still better, so as to enable him to discover the happiest solution for himself, from a careful representation of all the contingent obstacles. It will be evident, in the case of adult citizens, that the State can only adopt this negative system of instruction by extending freedom, which allows all obstacles to arise, while it developes the skill, and multiplies the opportunities necessary to encounter them; but, by following out a really national system of education, it can be brought to operate positively on the early training and culture of the young. We will take occasion, hereafter, to enter on a close examination of the objection which might be advanced here in favour of these institutions; viz. that in the execution of such important designs as those to which we refer, it is of far greater moment that the thing be done, than that the person who performs it should be thoroughly instructed in his task; that the land be well tilled, than that the husbandman be just the most skilful agriculturist.

But to continue: the evil results of a too extended solicitude on the part of the State, are still more strikingly manifested in the suppression of all active energy, and the necessary deterioration of the moral character. We scarcely need to substantiate this position by rigorous deductions. The man who frequently submits the conduct of his actions to foreign guidance and control, becomes gradually disposed to a willing sacrifice of the little spontaneity that remains to him. He fancies himself released from an anxiety which he sees transferred to other hands, and seems to himself to do enough when he looks for their leading, and follows the course to which it directs him. Thus, his notions of right and wrong, of praise and blame, become confounded. The idea of the first inspires him no longer; and the painful consciousness of the last assails him less frequently and violently, since he can more easily ascribe his shortcomings to his peculiar position, and leave them to the responsibility of those who have shaped it for him. If we add to this, that he may not, possibly, regard the designs of the State as perfectly pure in their objects or execution—should he find grounds to suspect that not his own advantage only, but along with it some other bye-scheme is intended, then, not only the force and energy, but the purity and excellence of his moral nature is brought to suffer. He now conceives himself not only irresponsible for the performance of any duty which the State has not expressly imposed upon him, but exonerated at the same time from every personal effort to ameliorate his own condition; nay, even shrinks from such an effort, as if it were likely to open out new opportunities, of which the State might not be slow to avail itself. And as for the laws actually enjoined, he labours, as much as possible, to escape their operation, considering every such evasion as a positive gain. If now we reflect that, as regards a large portion of the nation, its laws and political institutions have the effect of circumscribing the grounds of morality, it cannot but appear a melancholy spectacle to see at once the most sacred duties, and mere trivial and arbitrary enactments, proclaimed from the same authoritative source, and to witness the infraction of both visited with the same measure of punishment. Further, the injurious influence of such a positive policy is no less evident in its effects on the mutual bearing of the citizens, than in those manifestations of its pernicious working to which we have just referred. In proportion as each individual relies upon the helpful vigilance of the State, he learns to abandon to its responsibility the fate and wellbeing of his fellow-citizens. But the inevitable tendency of such abandonment is to deaden the living force of sympathy, and to render the natural impulse to mutual assistance inactive: or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish in its greatest activity and beauty, where the feeling is liveliest that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that those classes of the community which suffer under oppression, and are, as it were, overlooked by the Government, are always cemented together by the closest ties. But wherever the citizen becomes insensible to the interests of his fellow-citizen, the husband will contract feelings of cold indifference to the wife, and the father of a family towards the members of his household.

If men were left wholly to themselves in their various undertakings, and were cut off from all external resources, save those which their own efforts obtained, they would still, whether through their own fault and inadvertence or not, fall frequently into embarrassment and misfortune. But the happiness for which man is plainly destined, is no other than that which his own energies enable him to secure; and the very nature of such a self-dependent position furnishes him means whereby to discipline his intellect and cultivate his character. Are there no instances of such evils, I ask, where State agency fetters individual spontaneity by a too special interference? There are many, doubtless; and the man whom it has habituated to lean on foreign strength for support, is thus given up in critical emergencies to a fate which is truly far more hopeless and deplorable. For, just as the very act of struggling against misfortune, and encountering it with vigorous efforts, tends to lighten the calamity; so do baffled hopes and delusive expectations aggravate and embitter its severity tenfold. In short, to view their agency in the most favourable light, States like those to which we refer too often resemble the physician, who only retards the death of his patient in nourishing his disease. Before there were physicians, only health and death were known.

3. Everything towards which man directs his attention, whether it is limited to the direct or indirect satisfaction of his merely physical wants, or to the accomplishment of external objects in general, presents itself in a closely interwoven relation with his internal sensations. Sometimes, moreover, there co-exists with this external purpose, some impulse proceeding more immediately from his inner being; and often, even, this last is the sole spring of his activity, the former being only implied in it, necessarily or incidentally. The more unity a man possesses, the more freely do these external manifestations on which he decides emanate from the inner springs of his being, and the more frequent and intimate is the cooperation of these two sources of motive, even when he has not freely selected these external objects. A man, therefore, whose character peculiarly interests us, although his life does not lose this charm in any circumstances or however engaged, only attains the most matured and graceful consummation of his activity, when his way of life is in harmonious keeping with his character.

In view of this consideration, it seems as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists; that is, into men who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their enjoyments. And so humanity would be ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often go to degrade it. The more a man accustoms himself to dwell in the region of higher thoughts and sensations, and the more refined and vigorous his moral and intellectual powers become, the more he longs to confine himself to such external objects only as furnish ampler scope and material for his internal development; or, at least, to overcome all adverse conditions in the sphere allotted him, and transform them into more favourable phases. It is impossible to estimate a man’s advance towards the Good and the Beautiful, when his unremitting endeavours are directed to this one engrossing object, the development of his inner life; so that, superior to all other considerations, it may remain the same unfailing source, the ultimate goal of all his labours, and all that is corporeal and external may seem but as its instrument and veil.

How strikingly beautiful, to select an illustration, is the historical picture of the character fostered in a people by the undisturbed cultivation of the soil! The labour they bestow on the tillage of the land, and the bounteous harvest with which it repays their industry, bind them with sweet fetters to their fields and firesides. Their participation in the rich blessings of toil, and the common enjoyment of the ample fruits it earns, entwine each family with bonds of love, from whose gentle influence even the steer, the partner of their fatigue, is not wholly excluded. The seed which must be sown, the fruit which must be garnered—regularly returning, as they do, their yearly increase—instil a spirit of patience, trust, and frugality. The fact of their receiving everything immediately from the hand of benignant Nature,—the ever-deepening consciousness that, although the hand of man must first scatter the seed, it is not from human agency that the rich repletion of the harvest is derived,—the constant dependence on favourable and unfavourable skies, awaken presentiments of the existence of beings of a higher order, now instinct with dire foreboding, and now full of the liveliest joy—in the rapid alternations of fear and hope—and lead the soul to prayer and grateful praise. The visible image of the simplest sublimity, the most perfect order, and the gentlest beneficence, mould their lives into forms of simple grandeur and tenderness, and dispose their hearts to a cheerful submission to order and law. Always accustomed to produce, never to destroy, agriculture is essentially peaceful, and, while far beyond the reach of wrong and revenge, is yet capable of the most dauntless courage when roused to resist the injustice of unprovoked attack, and repel the invaders of its calm and happy contentment.

But, still, it cannot be doubted that freedom is the indispensable condition, without which even the pursuits most happily congenial to the individual nature, can never succeed in producing such fair and salutary influences. Whatever man is inclined to, without the free exercise of his own choice, or whatever only implies instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature, and is, indeed, effected by him, not so much with human agency, as with the mere exactness of mechanical routine. The ancients, and more especially the Greeks, were accustomed to regard every occupation as hurtful and degrading which was immediately connected with the exercise of physical power, or the pursuit of external advantages, and not exclusively confined to the development of the inner man. Hence, many of their philosophers who were most eminent for their philanthropy, approved of slavery; thereby adopting a barbarous and unjust expediency, and agreeing to sacrifice one part of mankind in order to secure to the other the highest force and beauty. But reason and experience combine to expose the error which lies at the root of such a fallacy. There is no pursuit whatever, nothing with which a man can concern himself, that may not give to human nature some worthy and determinate form, and furnish fair means for its ennoblement. The manner of its performance is the only thing to be considered; and we may here lay down the general rule, that a man’s pursuits re-act beneficially on his culture, so long as these, and the energies allied with them, succeed in filling and satisfying the wants of his soul; while their influence is not only less salutary, but even pernicious, when he directs his attention more exclusively to the results to which they conduce, and regards the occupation itself merely as a necessary means. For it is the property of anything which charms us by its own intrinsic worth, to awaken love and esteem, while that which only as a means holds out hopes of ulterior advantage, merely interests us; and the motives of love and esteem tend as directly to ennoble human nature, as those of interest to lower and degrade it. Now, in the exercise of such a positive solicitude as that we are considering, the State can only contemplate results, and establish rules whose observance will most directly conduce to their accomplishment.

Never does this limited point of view conduct to such pernicious issues as in those cases where moral or intellectual ends are the object of human endeavour; or, at least, where some end is regarded for itself, and apart from the consequences which are only necessarily or incidentally implied in it. This becomes evident, for instance, in all scientific researches and religious opinions, in all kinds of human association, and in that union in particular which is the most natural, and, whether we regard the State or the individual, the most vitally important, namely, Matrimony.

Matrimony, or as it may perhaps be best defined, the union of persons of both sexes, based on the very difference of sex, may be regarded in as many different aspects as the conceptions taken of that difference, and as the inclinations of the heart, and the objects which they present to the reason, assume different forms; and such a union will manifest in every man his whole moral character, and especially the force and peculiarity of his powers of sensation. Whether a man is more disposed to the pursuit of external objects, or to the exercise of the inner faculties of his being; whether reason or feeling is the more active principle in his nature; whether he is led to embrace things eagerly, and quickly abandon them, or engages slowly but continues faithfully; whether he is capable of deeper intimacy, or only loosely attaches himself; whether he preserves, in the closest union, more or less self-dependence; and an infinite number of other considerations modify, in a thousand ways, his relations in married life. Whatever form they assume, however, the effects upon his life and happiness are unmistakable; and upon the success or failure of the attempt to find or form a reality in union with the internal harmony of his nature, depends the loftier consummation or the relaxation of his being. This influence manifests itself most forcibly in those men, so peculiarly interesting in their character and actions, who form their perceptions with the greatest ease and delicacy, and retain them most deeply and lastingly. Generally speaking, the female sex may be more justly reckoned in this class than the male; and it is for this reason that the female character is most intimately dependent on the nature of the family relations in a nation. Wholly exempt as she is from most outward-occupations, and almost surrounded with those only which leave the soul undisturbed—stronger in what she can be than in what she can do—more full of expression in her calm and quiet, than in her manifested sensations—more richly endowed with all means of immediate, indefinable expression, a more delicate frame, a more moving eye, a more winning voice—destined rather, in her relations with others, to expect and receive, than to advance and approach—naturally weaker in herself, and yet not on that account, but through loving admiration of strength and greatness in another, clinging more closely—ceaselessly striving in the union to receive in common with the united one, to form the received in herself, and reproduce it moulded into new forms of creation—inspired at the same time with the courage which the solicitude of love and the feeling of strength infuse into the soul—not defying resistance, but not succumbing in endurance—Woman is, strictly speaking, nearer to the ideal of human nature than man; and whilst it is true that she more rarely reaches it, it may only be that it is more difficult to ascend by the steep, immediate path, than to approach slowly by the winding one. Now, how much such a being—so delicately susceptible, yet so complete in herself, and with whom therefore nothing is without effect—an effect that communicates itself not to a part only, but to the whole of her nature,—how much woman must be disturbed by external mis-relations, can scarcely be estimated. Hence the infinite results to society which depend on the culture of the female character. If it is not somewhat fanciful to suppose that each human excellence represents and accumulates itself, as it were, in some one species of being, we might believe that the whole treasure of morality and order is collected and enshrined in the female character. As the poet profoundly says,

“Man strives for freedom, woman still for order[1].”
While the former strives earnestly to remove the external barriers which oppose his development, woman’s careful hand prescribes that inner restraint within whose limits alone the fulness of power can refine itself to perfect issues; and she defines the circle with more delicate precision, in that her every sense is more faithful to her simple behests, spares her that laborious subtilizing which so often tends to enmesh and obscure the truth, and enables her to see more clearly through the intricate confusion of human relations, and fathom at once the innermost springs of human being.

If it were not superfluous, History would afford sufficient confirmation of the truth we would establish, and exhibit unmistakably the close and invariable connection that exists between national morality and respect for the female sex. The manifest inference we would derive, however, from these considerations on the institution of Matrimony is this: that the effects which it produces are as various as the characters of the persons concerned, and that, as a union so closely allied with the very nature of the respective individuals, it must be attended with the most hurtful consequences when the State attempts to regulate it by law, or through the force of its institutions to make it repose on anything save simple inclination. When we remember, moreover, that the State can only contemplate the final results in such regulations—as, for instance, Population, Early Training, etc.—we shall be still more ready to admit the justice of this conclusion. It may reasonably be argued that a solicitude for such objects conducts to the same results as the highest solicitude for the most beautiful development of the inner man. For, after careful observation, it has been found that the uninterrupted union of one man with one woman is most conducive to population; and it is likewise undeniable that no other union springs from true, natural, harmonious love. And further, it may be observed that such love leads to no other or different results than those very relations which law and custom tend to establish, such as the procreation of children, family training, community of living, participation in the common goods, the management of external affairs by the husband, and the care of domestic arrangements by the wife. But the radical error of such a policy appears to be, that the law commands, whereas such a relation cannot mould itself according to external arrangements, but depends wholly on inclination; and wherever coercion or guidance comes into collision with inclination, they divert it still further from the proper path. Wherefore it appears to me that the State should not only loosen the bonds in this instance, and leave ampler freedom to the citizen, but, if I may apply the principles above stated (now that I am not speaking of matrimony in general, but of one of the many injurious consequences arising from restrictive State institutions, which are in this one especially noticeable), that it should entirely withdraw its active solicitude from the institution of Matrimony, and both generally and in its particular modifications should rather leave it wholly to the free choice of the individuals, and the various contracts they may enter into with respect to it. I should not be deterred from the adoption of this principle by the fear that all family relations might be disturbed, or their manifestation in general impeded; for although such an apprehension might be justified by considerations of particular circumstances and localities, it could not be fairly entertained in an inquiry into the nature of Men and States in general. For experience frequently convinces us that just where law has imposed no fetters, morality most surely binds; the idea of external coercion is one entirely foreign to an institution which, like Matrimony, reposes only on inclination and an inward sense of duty; and the results of such coercive institutions do not at all correspond to the designs in which they originate.

4. The solicitude of a State for the positive welfare of its citizens, must further be hurtful, in that it has to operate upon a promiscuous mass of individualities, and therefore does harm to these by measures which cannot meet individual cases.

5. It hinders the development of Individuality[2]. . . . In the moral life of man, and generally in the practical conduct of his actions (in as far as they are guided by the same rules), he still endeavours to keep before his eyes the highest conception of the most individual development of himself and others, is always inspired with this design, and strictly subordinates all other considerations of interest to this pure and spiritual law that he has recognized. But all the phases of human nature in which it admits of culture, consist together in a wonderful relation and interdependence; and while their mutual coherency is more strikingly manifest (if not really more intimate) in the intellectual than in the physical world, it is infinitely more remarkable in the sphere of morality. Wherefore it follows that men are not to unite themselves together in order to forego any portion of their individuality, but only to lessen the exclusiveness of their isolation; it is not the object of such a union to transform one being into another, but to open out approaches between the single natures; whatever each himself possesses, he is to compare with that which he receives by communication with others, and, while introducing modifications in his own being by the comparison, not to allow its force and peculiarity to be suppressed in the process. For as truth is never found conflicting with truth in the domain of intellect, so too in the region of morality there is no opposition between things really worthy of human nature; and close and varied unions of individual characters are therefore necessary, in order to destroy what cannot co-exist in proximity, and does not, therefore, essentially conduce to greatness and beauty, while they cherish and foster that which continues to exist without opposition or disturbance, and render it fruitful in new and more exquisite issues. Wherefore it appears to me that the principle of the true art of social intercourse consists in a ceaseless endeavour to grasp the innermost individuality of another, to avail oneself of it, and, penetrated with the deepest respect for it as the individuality of another, to act upon it,—a kind of action, in which that same respect will not allow us other means for this purpose than to manifest oneself, and to institute a comparison, as it were, between the two natures, before the eyes of the other. This art has been hitherto singularly neglected, and although such neglect might borrow a plea, perhaps, from the circumstance that social intercourse should be a refreshing recreation, and not a toilsome duty, and that, unhappily enough, it is scarcely possible to discover in the common run of men an interesting phase of individuality, yet still it seems not too much to suppose that every one will have too deep a respect for himself to seek for recreation otherwise than in an agreeable alternation of interesting employments, or still less to look for it in that which would leave precisely his noblest faculties inactive, and too much reverence for human nature, to pronounce any single individual utterly incapable of being turned to good account, or of being in some way modified by the influence of others. He, at least, whose especial business it is to exercise an influence over his fellow-men, must not relinquish such a belief; and hence, inasmuch as the State, in its positive solicitude for the external and physical well-being of the citizen (which are closely interwoven with his inner being), cannot avoid creating hindrances to the development of individuality, we derive another reason why such a solicitude should not be conceded to it, except in the case of the most absolute necessity.

These, then, may constitute the principal hurtful consequences which flow from a positive solicitude of the State for the welfare of the citizen; and although they may be more especially implied in certain of its particular manifestations, they yet appear to me to be generally inseparable from the adoption of such a policy. It was my design hitherto to confine myself to a view of the State’s solicitude for physical welfare, and I have so far accorded with this intention as to proceed strictly from this point of view alone, carefully separating everything that referred exclusively to the moral well-being. But I took occasion at the outset to mention that the subject does not admit of any accurate division; and this may serve as my excuse, if much that naturally arises from the foregoing development of the argument, applies to the entire solicitude for positive welfare in general. I have hitherto proceeded on the supposition, however, that the State institutions referred to are already established, and I have therefore still to speak of certain difficulties which present themselves in the very framing of such institutions.

6. It is certain, then, that nothing would be more conducive to the successful issue of our present inquiry, than to weigh the advantages intended by such institutions against the disadvantages necessarily inherent in their consequences, and especially against the limitations of freedom which these consequences imply. But it is always a matter of extreme difficulty to effect such a balancing of results, and perhaps wholly impossible to secure its perfect accuracy and completeness. For every restrictive institution comes into collision with the free and natural development of power, and gives rise to an infinite multiplicity of new relations; and even if we suppose the most equable course of events, and set aside all serious and unlooked-for accidents, the number of these relations which it brings in its train is not to be foreseen. Any one who has an opportunity of occupying himself with the higher departments of State administration, must certainly feel conscious from experience how few political measures have really an immediate and absolute necessity, and how many, on the contrary, have only a relative and indirect importance, and are wholly dependent on foregone measures. Now, in this way a vast increase of means is rendered necessary, and even these very means are drawn away from the attainment of the true end. Not only does such a State require larger sources of revenue, but it needs in addition an increase of artificial regulations for the maintenance of mere political security: the separate parts cohere less intimately together—the supervision of the Government requires far more vigilance and activity. Hence comes the calculation, no less difficult, but unhappily too often neglected, whether the available resources of the State are adequate to provide the means which the maintenance of security demands; and should this calculation reveal a real misproportion, it only suggests the necessity of fresh artificial arrangements, which, in the end, overstrain the elasticity of the power—an evil from which (though not from this cause only) many of our modern States are suffering.

We must not overlook here one particular manifestation of this generally injurious agency, since it so closely affects human development; and this is, that the very administration of political affairs becomes in time so full of complications, that it requires an incredible number of persons to devote their time to its supervision, in order that it may not fall into utter confusion. Now, by far the greater portion of these have to deal with the mere symbols and formulas of things; and thus, not only men of first-rate capacity are withdrawn from anything which gives scope or stimulus to the thinking faculties, and men who would be usefully employed in some other way are diverted from their real course of action, but their intellectual powers are brought to suffer from this partly fruitless, partly one-sided employment. Wholly new sources of gain, moreover, are introduced and established by this necessity of despatching State affairs, and these render the servants of the State more dependent on the governing classes of the community than on the nation in general. Familiar as they have become to us in experience, we need not pause to describe the numerous evils which flow from such a dependence—what looking to the State for help, what a lack of self-reliance, what false vanity, what inaction even, and want. The very evils from which these hurtful consequences flow, are immediately produced by them in turn. When once thus accustomed to the transaction of State affairs, men gradually lose sight of the essential object, and limit their regard to the mere form; they are thus prompted to attempt new ameliorations, perhaps true in intention, but without sufficient adaptation to the required end; and the prejudicial operation of these necessitates new forms, new complications, and often new restrictions, and thereby creates new departments, which require for their efficient supervision a vast increase of functionaries. Hence it arises that in every decennial period the number of the public officials and the extent of registration increase, while the liberty of the subject proportionately declines. In such an administration, moreover, it follows of course that everything depends on the most vigilant supervision and careful management, since there are such increased opportunities of falling short in both; and hence we may not unjustly suppose the Government desirous that everything should pass through as many hands as possible, in order to defeat the risk of errors and embezzlement.

But according to this method of transacting affairs, business becomes in time merely mechanical, while the men who are engaged in it relapse into machines, and all genuine worth and honesty decline in proportion as trust and confidence are withdrawn. Finally, as the occupations we refer to must be vested with high importance, and must in consequence really acquire that importance in men’s opinion, the idea of what is momentous or trivial, of what is dignified or contemptible, of what are essential and what are subordinate aims, must soon be wholly reversed. Admitting, in conclusion, that the actual necessity for occupations of this nature compensates, on the other hand, by many beneficial results, for the introduction of these manifold evils, I will not here dwell longer on this part of the subject, but will proceed at once to the ultimate consideration—to which all that has hitherto been educed is but the necessary prelude and preparation,—and endeavour to show how the positive solicitude of a State tends utterly to confound all just and natural points of view.

7. In the kind of policy we are supposing, then, men are neglected for things, and powers for results. A political community, organized and governed according to this system, resembles rather an accumulated mass of living and lifeless instruments of action and enjoyment, than a multitude of acting and enjoying powers. In disregarding the spontaneity of acting beings, they seem to confine their view to the attainment of happiness and enjoyment alone. But although the calculation would be just, inasmuch as the sensation of him who experiences them is the best index of happiness and enjoyment, it would still be very far below the dignity of human nature. For how could we account for it otherwise, that this very system, which aims at tranquillity, should yet, as if apprehensive of the contrary, willingly resign the highest human enjoyment? Joy is greatest in those moments in which man is sensible of having attained the highest reach of his faculties, and is most deeply conscious of the entirety of his nature. It is doubtless true that at such times also he is nearest the depth of his greatest misery; for the moment of intensity can only be succeeded by a like intensity, and the impulse to joy or despair remains ever in the hands of invincible fate. But when the feeling of the highest in human nature truly deserves the name of happiness, even pain and suffering assume another character. The inmost heart of man is the true seat of happiness or misery, nor does his feeling fluctuate with the billowy tide of circumstance on which he is borne. The system we have condemned only leads us to a fruitless struggle to escape pain. But he who truly knows the nature of enjoyment can endure and resign himself to pain, which, in spite of all, still speeds on the footsteps of the fugitive; thus he learns to rejoice unceasingly in the steady, onward march of destiny; and the prospect of greatness still sweetly allures him, whether growing up before his admiration in the present, or fleeing away from his eyes into the dimly-receding future. Thus he comes to the feeling (so rare except to the enthusiast) that even the moment in which he is most deeply sensible of destruction, may be a moment of the highest ecstasy.

Perhaps I may be charged with having exaggerated the evils here enumerated; but, allowing that they may be materially modified in their operation, according to the degree and method of State interference, I must repeat, with this reservation, that it was my task to follow out the working of that interference to its fullest and furthest consequences. With regard to the whole conduct of the inquiry, I would desire that all considerations of a general nature contained in these pages, be viewed entirely apart from the reality of actual practice. In this reality we do not often find any case fully and purely developed,—we do not see the true working of single elements, separate and by themselves. And it is not to be forgotten, in such a consideration of causes and effects, that when once noxious influences are set in operation, the course of ruin towards which they impel, progresses with rapidly accelerating strides. Just as a greater force united to a greater produces results doubly multiplied in their magnitude and importance; so does a less in conjunction with a less quickly degenerate to infinitesimal issues, which baffle the subtlest penetration to follow them in their rapid grades of declension. Should we even concede, however, that these consequences might be less fatal, the opposite theory would still approve itself the happiest in the truly inestimable blessings that must flow from the application of its principles, if that application should ever be wholly possible. For the ever-restless impulsive force inherent in the very nature of things, incessantly struggles against the operation of every pernicious institution, while it promotes as actively everything of a beneficial tendency; so that we may accept it in the highest sense as true, that the sum of evil produced at any time, even by the most determined eagerness and activity, can never equal the fair amount of good that is everywhere and at all times spontaneously effected.

I could here present an agreeable contrast of a people in the enjoyment of absolute, unfettered freedom, and of the richest diversity of individual and external relations; I could exhibit how, even in such a condition, fairer and loftier and more wonderful forms of diversity and originality must still be revealed, than even any in that antiquity which so unspeakably fascinates, despite the harsher features which must still characterize the individuality of a ruder civilization; a condition in which force would still keep pace with refinement, and even with the rich resources of revealed character, and in which, from the endlessly ramified interconnection between all nations and quarters of the globe, the very elements themselves would seem more numerous; I could then proceed to show that new force would bloom out and ripen into fruition, when every existing thing was organizing itself by its own unhindered agency; when even surrounded, as it would be, by the most exquisite forms, it transformed these present shapes of beauty into its own internal being with that unhampered spontaneity which is the cherished growth of freedom: I could point out with what delicacy and refinement the inner life of man would unfold its strength and beauty; how it would in time become the high, ultimate object of his solicitude, and how everything physical and external would be transfused into the inner moral and intellectual being, and the bond which connects the two natures together would gain lasting strength, when nothing intervened to disturb the reaction of all human pursuits upon the mind and character: how no single agent would be sacrificed to the interest of another; but while each held fast the measure of power bestowed on him, he would for that very reason be inspired with a still lovelier eagerness to give it a direction conducive to the benefit of the others: how, when every one was progressing in his individuality, more varied and exquisite modifications of the beautiful human character would spring up, and onesidedness would become more rare, as it is the result of feebleness and insufficiency; and as each, when nothing else would avail to make the other assimilate himself to him, would be more effectually constrained to modify his own being by the still continuing necessity of union with others: how, in such a people, no single energy or hand would be lost to the task of ennobling and enhancing human existence: and lastly, how through this focal concentration of energies, the views of all would be directed to this last end alone, and would be turned aside from every other object that was false or less worthy of humanity. I might then conclude, by showing how the beneficial consequences of such a constitution, diffused throughout the people of any nation whatever, would even remove an infinite share of the frightfulness of that human misery which is never wholly eradicable, of the destructive devastations of nature, of the fell ravages of hostile animosity, and of the wanton luxuriousness of excessive indulgence in pleasure. But I content myself with having limned out the more prominent features of the contrasting picture in a general outline; it is enough for me to throw out a few suggestive ideas, for riper judgments to sift and examine.

If we come now to the ultimate result of the whole argument we have been endeavouring to develope, the first principle we eliminate will be, that the State is to abstain from all solicitude for the positive welfare of the citizens, and not to proceed a step further than is necessary for their mutual security and protection against foreign enemies; for with no other object should it impose restrictions on freedom.

The means through which such a solicitude manifests itself in action, would now naturally present themselves for our consideration; but, as the principles we seek to establish wholly disapprove of the thing itself, it is needless to dwell on these. It may be generally observed however, in connection with this subject, that the means by which freedom is limited with a view to welfare are very various in their character, as laws, exhortations, premiums, which are direct in their operation, and immunities, monopolies, etc. and the power acquired by the sovereign as chief landowner, which are indirect; and that all of them, whether direct or indirect, or however they may differ in kind or degree, are attended with pernicious consequences. Should it be objected to these assertions that it appears somewhat strange to deny to the State a privilege which is accorded to every individual, viz. to propose rewards, to extend loans, to be a land-owner, the objection might be fairly entertained if it were possible for the State to consist of a double personality in practice, as it does in theory. In such a case it would be the same as if a private individual had secured to himself a vast amount of influence. But when we reflect (still keeping theory clear from practice) that the influence of a private person is liable to diminution and decay, from competition, dissipation of fortune, nay even death; and that clearly none of these contingencies can be applied to the State; there still remains the unassailable principle that the latter is not to meddle in anything which does not refer exclusively to security,—a principle whose force of apposition is enhanced in that it has not been supported by arguments derived from the very nature of coercion itself. A private person, moreover, acts from other motives than the State. If an individual citizen proposes premiums, which I will agree to suppose are as efficient inducements as those of the State (although this is never perhaps the case), he does so for some interest of his own. Now, from his continual intercourse with his fellow-citizens, and the equality of his condition with theirs, his interest must be closely connected with their advantage or disadvantage, and hence with the circumstances of their respective positions. The end moreover which he designs to attain is already prepared and anticipated in the present, and therefore produces beneficial results. But the grounds on which the State acts are ideas and principles, which often deceive the correctest calculations; and if the reasons be drawn from considerations of its private capacity, it may be observed that this is too often questionable, where the welfare and security of the citizen are concerned, and further, that the capacity of the citizens is never equal in the same degree. Even granting this double personality, it is then no longer the State which acts; and the very nature of such reasoning forbids its application.

The points of view from which these last considerations are suggested, and from which indeed our whole argument proceeds, have no other object than simply man’s power, as such, and his internal development. Such reasoning would be justly chargeable with onesidedness if it wholly disregarded the conditions which must exist in order that that power may operate at all. And while mentioning this, we must not overlook the question that naturally arises in this place, viz. whether those very things from which we would withdraw the operation of State solicitude, could ever flourish without it and of themselves. We might here pass before us in successive review, the different kinds of handicraft, agriculture, industry, commerce, and all those distinct departments we have hitherto considered in common, and could bring in the aid of technical knowledge to exhibit the evils and advantages derivable in each case from unhindered freedom, and the abandonment of men to themselves. But, while the want of such technical insight prevents my entering on such a discussion, I am inclined to believe it no longer essential for arriving at the true merits of the question. Still, if such an investigation could be radically, and, what is especially important, historically conducted, it would not fail to be useful, in that it would tend still more convincingly to approve these ideas, and ascertain at the same time the possibility of their being put in practice, however materially modified,—for the once existing order of things in any political community would scarcely allow of their unmodified application. Leaving this inquiry however to the proper hands, I shall content myself here with a few general reflections. Every occupation, then, of whatever nature, is more efficiently performed if pursued for its own sake alone, rather than for the results to which it leads. So deeply grounded is this in human nature, that what has at first been chosen for its utility, in general becomes ultimately attractive in itself. Now this arises from nothing else than this, that action is dearer to human nature than mere possession, but action only in so far as it is spontaneous. It is just the most vigorous and energetic who would prefer inactivity to a course of labour to which they are constrained. Further, the idea of property gains proportionate strength with the idea of freedom, and it is to the feeling of property that we owe the most vigorous activity. The accomplishment of any great ultimate purpose supposes unity of plan. This requires no proof; and it is equally true of measures for the prevention of great calamities, famines, inundations, etc. But this unity might as easily proceed from national as from merely governmental arrangements. It is only necessary to extend to the nation and its different parts the freedom of entering into contracts. Between a national and a governmental institution there is always a vast and important difference. That has only an indirect—this, a direct influence; and hence with the former there is always greater freedom of contracting, dissolving, and modifying unions. It is highly probable that all State unions were originally nothing more than such national associations. And here experience shows us the fatal consequences of combining with provisions for security, the attainment of other ultimate ends. Whoever engages in this design must, for the sake of security alone, possess absolute power. But this power he extends to the execution of the remaining projects; and in proportion to its duration and the remoteness from its origin, the power of an institution increases, and the traces of the primary contract vanish. A national measure, however, only retains its proper force in so far as it adheres faithfully to this original compact and its authority. This reason alone might seem sufficient; but, granting even that the fundamental compact was rigidly observed, and that the State union was, in the strictest sense, a national association, still the will of the individuals could only be ascertained through a system of Representation; and it is impossible for the representative of a plurality to be so true an organ of all the opinions of the represented. Now the point to which the whole argument conducts us, is the necessity of securing the consent of every individual. But this very necessity renders the decision by a majority of voices impossible; and yet no other could be imagined in the case of a State union which, in regard to single objects, extended its activity to the positive welfare of the citizen. Nothing would be left to the non-consenting but to withdraw themselves from the community in order to escape its jurisdiction, and prevent the further application of a majority of suffrages to their individual cases. And yet this is almost impossible when we reflect that to withdraw from the social body is just tantamount to separating oneself from the State. We would observe, further, that it is better to enter into separate unions in single associations, than to contract them generally for undetermined future cases; and lastly, that to form associations of free men in a nation is attended with peculiar difficulty. For although this last consideration may seem prejudicial to the attainment of ultimate purposes, it is still certain that every larger association is in general less beneficial; and it should not be forgotten that whatever is produced with difficulty gains from the very fact a more lasting vigour by the implied consolidation of forces long tested and exercised. The more a man acts for himself, the more does he develope himself. In large associations he is too prone to become an instrument merely. A frequent effect of these unions moreover is to allow the symbol to be substituted for the thing, and this always impedes true development. The dead hieroglyphic does not inspire like living nature. In place of other examples I need only instance the case of poor-laws. Does anything tend so effectually to deaden and destroy all true commiseration,—all hopeful yet unobtrusive entreaty,—all loving trustfulness of man in man? Do we not all fitly despise the beggar who rather resigns himself to be fed and nursed in an almshouse than, after sore struggling with want, to find, not a mere hand flinging him a pittance, but a tenderly sympathizing heart? I am willing to admit, in conclusion, that without the mighty masses as it were, with which we have been working in these last centuries, human progress might not have advanced with strides so rapid,—and yet perhaps not rapid alone. The fruit had been longer in expanding and maturing, but still it would really have ripened, and that with a far richer and more precious blessing. Granting this, it is needless to dwell longer on this objection. But two others remain to be tested as we proceed, viz: Whether the maintenance of security even would be possible, with those limitations of the State’s activity we have here prescribed? and secondly, Whether the necessary provision of means for the manifestation of its activity, even when thus limited, does not come to necessitate a more manifold encroachment of the wheels of the State machine, into the relations of the individual citizen?



[1] “Nach Freiheit strebt der Mann, das Weib nach Sitte.”—Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, ii. 1.

[2] The reader is referred to the “Prefatory Remarks” for the explanation of this hiatus.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals