The Limits of State Action

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)


On the Solicitude of the State for the Negative Welfare of the Citizen--For His Security

To counteract the evil which arises from the tendency man has to transgress his own appropriate limits,[1] and the discord occasioned by such unjust encroachment on the rights of others, constitutes the essential ground and object of State-union. If it were the same with these subversive manifestations to which we allude, as with the physical violence of nature, or with the working of that moral evil which disturbs the natural order of things through excessive enjoyment or privation, or through other actions inconsistent with that order—then would such unions no longer be necessary. The former, or physical, evil would be encountered by the unaided efforts of human courage, skill, and forethought: the latter, or moral, by the wisdom which is matured in experience; and with either, in any case, the removal of an evil would be the termination of a struggle. Under such a supposition, therefore, any ultimate, absolute authority, such as properly constitutes the idea of the State, would be wholly unneeded. But, as it is, human variance and discord are utterly different in their nature from these, and positively necessitate at all times the existence of some supreme power like that to which we refer. For in this discordancy one conflict springs immediately from another. Wrong begets revenge; and revenge is but a new wrong. And hence it becomes necessary to look for some species of revenge which does not admit of any other retaliation—that is the punishment inflicted by the State, or for a settlement of the controversy which obliges the the parties to rest satisfied, viz. the decision of the judge. There is nothing, moreover, which necessitates such stringent coercion and such unconditional obedience as man’s spirit of enterprise against his fellow-men, whether we regard the expulsion of foreign enemies, or the preservation of security within the State itself. Now, without security, it is impossible for man either to develope his powers, or to enjoy the fruits of his exertion; for, without security, there can be no freedom. But it will be seen at once that this is a condition which man is wholly unable to realize by his own individual efforts; the reasons we have just hinted at serve to show this, and we are confirmed in the conviction by experience; for although we observe that our States are in a far more favourable position than we can conceive that of man in a state of nature to be (closely knit together, as they are, by innumerable treaties and bonds of alliance, and by mutual fear, which so constantly prevents the actual outbreaks of violence)—we must allow, notwithstanding, that they do not possess that freedom which under the most ordinary constitution the very meanest subject enjoys. Whilst, therefore, I have hitherto found reasons for withdrawing the exercise of State solicitude from many important objects, because the nation can accomplish them as effectually and without incurring the evils which flow from State interference, I must for similar reasons direct it to Security as to the only thing[2] which the individual cannot obtain for himself and by his own unaided efforts. I would therefore lay down as the first positive principle—a principle to be more carefully defined and limited in the subsequent course of inquiry—that the maintenance of security, as well with regard to the attacks of foreign enemies as to the danger of internal discord, constitutes the true end of the State, and must especially occupy its activity.

Hitherto I have attempted only to define this true end of the State in a negative way, by showing that the latter should not, at least, extend the sphere of its solicitude any further.

If we refer to the pages of history we only find additional confirmation of the position we would establish, in the fact that the kings in all earlier nations were in reality nothing more than leaders in war, and judges in times of peace. I says, kings. For (if I may be pardoned this digression), in those very periods in which men most fondly cherish the feeling of freedom—possessing, as they do, but little property, and only knowing and prizing personal force, and placing the highest enjoyment in its exercise—in those very periods, however strange it may seem, history shows us nothing but kings and monarchies. We observe this in all the Asiatic political unions, in those of the earliest ages of Greece, of Italy, and of those tribes who loved freedom more devotedly than all—the German.[3] If we examine into the reasons for this seeming contradiction, we are struck with the truth, that the very choice of a monarchy is a proof that those who select that form of government are in the enjoyment of the highest freedom. The idea of a chief ruler arises only, as was before observed, from the deep-felt necessity for some military leader and umpire of disputes. Now to have one general or umpire is unquestionably the happiest provision for such a necessity. The apprehension that the one person so selected may ultimately become a master is unknown to the man who is truly free; he does not even dream of such a possibility; to no one does he attribute the power of subjugating his liberty, and to no one that is himself free the wish to lord it over others—for he who is utterly insensible to the sublime beauty of liberty and thirsts only for dominion, is in reality in love with slavery, so long as he does not contemplate the likelihood of being himself a slave; and thus it is, that as the science of morals originated in crime, and theology in heresy, so politics sprang into existence with servitude.

And yet, although we find their prototypes in antiquity, it is certain that our monarchs have not the honeyed and persuasive speech which characterized the kings of Homer and Hesiod.[4]



[1] What I am here obliged to convey by a circumlocution, the Greeks expressed in the single word, ?????????, for which, however, I do not find an exact equivalent in any other language. We could say, perhaps, in German: ‘Begierde nach mehr,’ ‘a desire for more;’ yet still this would not include the notion of unrightfulness, which is conveyed in the Greek expression,—at least, if not in the literal meaning of the word, in the constant use of it in their writings. The word ‘Uebervortheilung,’ ‘taking more than one’s share,’ although still not so full in significance, may approach somewhat nearer to the idea.
[2] La sûreté et la liberté personnelle sont les seules choses qu’un être isolé ne puisse s’assurer par lui-même.—Mirabeau sur l’Educat. publique, p. 119

[3] “Reges (nam in terris nomen imperii id primum fuit),” etc.—Sallust in Catilina, c. 2. (Kings—for that was the first title of earthly authority, etc.) .—Dion. Halicarn. Antiquit. Rom. lib. 5. (All the Grecian States were at first governed by kings, etc.)

[4]  Hesiod. Theog. 81. sqq. 88 sqq.

“Whomsoever of the race of kings,—

The foster-sons of Jove,—Jove’s daughters will
To honour, on whose infant head, when first
Usher’d to light, they placid gaze from high,
Upon his tongue they shed a balmy dew;
And words, as honey sweet, drop from his lips.”
“Lo! in this are kings discreet;
That, in their judgment-hall, they from th’ oppress’d
Turn back the tide of ills, retrieving wrongs
With mild accost of soothing eloquence.”
C. A. Elton’s translation, v. 112. sqq. 122 sqq.

 Writings of Wilhelm Von Humboldt

 Classical Liberals