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A Classic of Liberal Thought

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France published by Oxford University Press in 2011 and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published last month by Liberty Fund. 

    Most of us, I imagine, have felt embarrassed by not having read some great book or other. I used to feel this way about James Joyce’s Ulysses. Happily I got over this and concluded that, having read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I had done my bit for modern literature. However, there were still a few books left unread which caused me mild discomfort whenever they were mentioned.  One of them was Wilhelm von Humboldt’s The Limits of State Action.

    Anyone who has read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty will have come across it, as Humboldt’s text provides Mill with the epigram that opens his famous essay. “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges”, it reads, “is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity”.  Yet, until a few weeks ago, I had never gone back to Humboldt’s original work to find out just why he believed this to be so. When I did, it was well worth the effort.

    The book itself was written in the early 1790s but it was not published until 1854 (five years before the publication of On Liberty). Humboldt himself died in 1835. Not surprisingly it is heavily influenced by German philosophy, the likes of Kant jostling for position by the side of Goethe and Schiller. But the message conveyed is clear and it is surprisingly modern.

    As the book title suggests, the primary question it addresses is that of the proper limits of state action. This necessarily entails a discussion of the meaning of freedom and of human flourishing.  If, according to Humboldt, “the true end of man…is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and inconsistent whole”, freedom is its first and indispensable condition. It is through his own active energy and through the expression of his individuality that man will attain this goal.

    What follows from this is that the State should not concern itself with what Humboldt describes as “the positive welfare of citizen”. The actions of the state, he tells us, induce uniformity; they weaken the “vitality” of the nation; they lead to a “necessary deterioration of moral character” and to an indifference towards our fellows; it reduces the political community “to an agglomerated mass of living but lifeless instruments of action and enjoyment”.  As Humboldt puts it, “the man who is often led easily becomes disposed willingly to sacrifice what remains of his capacity for spontaneous action”. Few pieces of legislation, Humboldt concludes, are of “immediate and absolute necessity” and all require for their supervision “a vast increase of functionaries”.

    Humboldt’s description of how the activity of the state reduces human variety and diversity has more dimensions than this but there can be no doubt as to where his argument leads.  If the state is not to concern itself with the positive welfare of its citizens, it should not “proceed a step further than is necessary for their mutual security and protection against foreign enemies”. On no other grounds can the state impose restrictions upon the liberty of the individual. As Humboldt writes, the man must not be sacrificed to the citizen.

    Humboldt therefore opposes a national system of education; he sees the dangers of state administered poor relief; he is against an established religion; and he contests the utility of legislation designed to secure the amelioration of morals.  With great prescience, he sees that even a prosperous and peaceable state will reduce its citizens to “a multitude of well-cared-for slaves”.

    What is Humboldt’s alternative? Voluntary contracts between individuals and what he terms “the free cooperation of the members of the nation”.  “I have felt myself animated throughout”, Humboldt ends, “with a sense of the deepest respect for the inherent dignity of human nature, and for freedom”.  The Limits of State Action certainly merits being read by everyone who shares the vision of the Centre for Policy Studies. I’m just annoyed that it took me so long to get around it. Still, better late than never.

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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