Remembering Humboldt’s Wisdom

On the 250th anniversary of his birth we reflect on Wilhelm von Humboldt’s wisdom and strong defense of liberty

American politics seems to have moved beyond the foundational principles of what a government that exists for the good of its citizens can and cannot do.

That leaves Americans far from what once defined America. For instance, James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” wrote that “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents,” yet the dissonance between those words and our ubiquitous government could hardly be greater. It is long past time to return to those foundational principles.

A valuable source of understanding comes from one of Madison’s contemporaries, unfortunately, overlooked in America today--Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 – 1835). Philosopher, linguist, diplomat, educational reformer and founder of the University of Berlin, among other accomplishments, Humboldt’s great contribution to liberty was his book The Sphere and Duties of Government (or The Limits of State Action), finished in 1792 but not published in its entirety until long after his death.

Humboldt’s English translator, Joseph Coulthard, called it “a calm investigation of the most important questions that can occupy the attention of the statesman.”"A state seeking to provide for more...will inevitably destroy...freedom" The liberal-international website describes his work as arguing that “a state seeking to provide for more than the physical safety of the citizens will inevitably destroy the freedom and the creativity of the individuals. The only source of progress in a liberal society is the free interaction of free people.” Ralph Raico wrote that “in it are set forth-- in some cases, I believe, for the first time--some of the major arguments for freedom.” On the 250th anniversary of Humboldt’s birth, his bold defense of liberty is worth reconsidering.

The true end of Man…is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers…Freedom is the grand and indispensable condition which the possibility of such a development presupposes.

Any State interference in private affairs, not directly implying violence done to individual rights, should be absolutely condemned.

The State…has no peculiar interest of its own, apart from those of its citizens.

Wishes of individual men are to be preferred to the…will of the State.

Maintenance of security…constitutes the true end of the State…the latter should not…extend the sphere of its solicitude any further.

So long as the citizen conducts himself in conformity with the laws, and maintains himself and those dependent on him…without doing anything calculated to prejudice the interests of the State, the latter [should] not trouble itself about the particular manner of his existence.

The great essentials for social welfare are always left to be secured by the voluntary and harmonious endeavors of the citizens.

In the enjoyment of absolute, unfettered freedom...no single agent would be sacrificed to the interest of another."Political activity can only extend its influence to such actions as imply a direct trespass on the rights of others."

The State may not make man an instrument to subserve its arbitrary designs.

Freedom…always suffers from…solicitude on the part of the State.

Moral law obliges us to regard every man as an end to himself.

Political activity can only extend its influence to such actions as imply a direct trespass on the rights of others.

It is only actual violations of right which require any other power to counteract them than that which every individual himself possesses.

The State organism is merely a subordinate means, to which man, the true end, is not to be sacrificed.

The State, then, is not to concern itself in any way with the positive welfare of its citizens…except where these are imperiled by the actions of others; but it is to keep a vigilant eye on their security.

Actions do no violence to right except when they deprive another of a part of his freedom or possessions without, or against, his will.

The State must prohibit or restrict such actions…as imply the infringement on others’ rights…or encroach…on their freedom or property without or against their will... Beyond this, every limitation of personal freedom is to be condemned.

The State…must, therefore, pursue no other object than that which [citizens] cannot procure of themselves, viz. security…the only true and infallible means to connect…the State as a whole, and the collective aims of all its individual citizens.

The State…has no peculiar interest of its own, apart from those of its citizens.

I call the citizens of a State secure, when…in the full enjoyment of their due rights of person and property, they are out of the reach of… encroachments of others.

Solicitude…for the necessary chiefly requires negative measures; since… necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds.

Wilhelm von Humboldt derived the need to limit government from its one means of benefitting society—providing security for its citizens better than they could provide it for themselves. He recognized that, as Ralph Raico put it, “force necessarily interferes with individual self-development.” As a consequence, Humboldt understood that “men are not to unite themselves together in order to forego any portion of their individuality,” so that the touchstone for legitimate government action was the requirement that “the due limits of State agency must conduct us to an ampler range of freedom.” Given how much government now affirms itself to the detriment of the individuals comprising society, it is worth remembering Humboldt’s insights into sharply limited government as the only way to maintain liberty, which is “more vitally momentous than any other political question.”

Further Reading

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