Germany’s Greatest Philosopher of Freedom
Americans, as a rule, are poorly informed about the vast insights into liberty that some their countrymen have offered them. But moving beyond our borders and language, many know next to nothing. That is why it is valuable to find, in Star Trek lingo, that “undiscovered country” of understanding.
One of the most valuable foreign sources of libertarian thought comes from Wilhelm von Humboldt. Born June 22, 1767, in Prussia, his book, translated from German into English, titledThe Sphere and Duties of Government (or The Limits of State Action in another translation) was a major work in liberty.
Humboldt’s own description of the heart of his book was that “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument…directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”
J.W. Burrow wrote that “Humboldt explores the role that liberty plays in individual development, discusses criteria for permitting the state to limit individual actions, and suggests ways of confining the state to its proper bounds. In so doing, he uniquely combines the ancient concern for human excellence and the modern concern for what has come to be known as negative liberty.” And The Sphere also inspired John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (though Barrow noted that “many commentators even believe that Humboldt’s discussion of issues of freedom and individual responsibility possesses greater clarity and directness than Mill’s”). In fact, Mill wrote in his Autobiography that “the only author who had preceded me…of whom I thought it appropriate to say anything, was Humboldt.”
George Smith wrote that The Sphere was “one of the best defenses of limited-government libertarianism ever written.” It led Friedrich Hayek to call him “Germany’s greatest philosopher of freedom.” Ralph Raico wrote that Humboldt came to “passionately defend personal liberty,” which led him to ask, “To what end ought the whole apparatus of the state to aim, and what limits ought to be set to its activity?” What was his answer? “The one good which society cannot provide for itself is security against those who aggress against the person and property of others.” As a result, “the provision of security, against both external enemies and internal dissensions must constitute the purpose of the state, and occupy the circle of its activity.” But “for the [other] services which it is commonly held must fall within the scope of government action…Humboldt believes that they need not be provided by political institutions, but can safely be entrusted to social ones” (a theme strongly echoed by Albert Jay Nock). Humboldt’s approach also infused Leonard Read’s work at the Foundation for Economic Education, with its central focus on enabling individual growth or “blooming.”
Even though The Sphere was first published in its entirety in 1850, and first translated into English in 1854, long after Humboldt’s death, few American writers can claim a closer connection to America’s revolutionary era. Humboldt was born in 1767, just ten days before the British passed the Townsend Acts, a major impetus toward our revolution. He completed the book in 1792, when George Washington won a second term. Much of his adult life overlapped that of James Madison (Humboldt died one year before him), whose efforts dealt with related themes. Further, few works have better caught the spirit of liberty that infused our revolution.
Consider a selection of Humboldt’s insights below as food for thought.
- “Inquiry into the proper aims and limits of State agency [is]…more vitally momentous than any other political question.”
- “The due limits of State agency must conduct us to an ampler range of freedom.”
- “The freedom of private life always increases in exact proportion as public freedom declines.”
- “The highest ideal…consist[s] in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own inmost nature, and for his own sake.”
- “Reason cannot desire for man any other condition than that in which each individual…enjoys the most absolute freedom of developing himself by his own energies, in his perfect individuality…restricted only by the limits of his powers and his rights.”
- “State measures…accustom men to look for instruction, guidance, and assistance from without, rather than to rely upon their own expedients.”
- “In proportion as each individual relies upon…the State, he learns to abandon to its responsibility the fate and wellbeing of his fellow-citizens.”
- “Men are not to unite themselves together in order to forego any portion of their individuality.”
- “The State, in its positive solicitude for the external and physical well-being of the citizen, cannot avoid creating hindrances to the development of individuality….[S]uch a solicitude should not be conceded to it.”
- “The whole argument conducts us [to] the necessity of securing the consent of every individual.”
- “The more a man acts for himself, the more does he develop himself.”
- “Now, without security, it is impossible for man either to develop his powers, or to enjoy the fruits of his exertion; for, without security, there can be no freedom.”
- “The State…is not to meddle in anything which does not refer exclusively to security.”
- “The State may not attempt to act upon the citizen’s peculiar condition with any reference to positive ends.”
- “The citizens of a State [are] secure, when, living together in the full enjoyment of their due rights of person and property, they are out of the reach of any external disturbance from the encroachments of others.”
- “The State…is not to withhold a man from the free exercise of his chosen pursuit because he has not submitted himself to its tests of capability.”
- “The less a man is induced to act otherwise than his wish suggests or his powers permit, the more favorable does his position as a member of a civil community become.”
- “The manifold and ever-varying plans and wishes of individual men are to be preferred to the uniform and unchangeable will of the State.”
- “Secure a due regard to the rights of others.”
- “The nation can accomplish [many important objects] as effectually and without incurring the evils which flow from State interference.”
- “Fatal consequences…flow for human enjoyment, power, and character, from confounding the free activity of the nation with that which is enforced upon its members.”
- “The government whose activity we have so narrowly circumscribed does not stand in need of such abundant sources of revenue.”
- “The grand point to be kept in view by the State is the development of the powers of all its single citizens in their perfect individuality.”
As Ralph Raico summarized The Sphere and Duties of Government, “Humboldt shows himself to be a thoughtful but passionate believer in the efficacy of truly social forces, in the possibility of great social ends being achieved without any necessity for direction on the part of the state.”
That is something our current age, in which the presumed sphere of government extends to virtually everything, would profit from remembering. And for those interested in reading further, more of his insightful words can be found here and here.