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Wilhelm von Humboldt's 'The Sphere and Duties of Government'


Guest Post: Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ‘Calm Investigation of the Most Important Questions’

by Gary M. Galles


When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about the constitutional authority for Obamacare, her reply was to incredulously repeat “Are you serious?,” echoed by her spokesman, who said, “You can put this on the record: That is not a serious question.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (with oversight to ensure that America is under the rule of law and not of men) asserted “there’s no question there’s authority. Nobody questions that.”

Such derisive responses to questions of the limits on government authority overthrow the principles that defined America. For instance, James Madison, considered “the father of the Constitution,” wrote in 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.” Since the dissonance between those words and our ubiquitous government could hardly be greater, it is long past time to return to those foundational questions.

One valuable source of this understanding comes from one of Madison’s contemporaries, unfortunately overlooked in America today–Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt (1767 – 1835), better known as Wilhelm von Humboldt. Humboldt was a philosopher, linguist, diplomat, educational reformer and founder of the University of Berlin, among other accomplishments. But his 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 almost half a century later, long after his death.

Humboldt’s 1854 English translator, Joseph Coulthard, said The Sphere and Duties of Government offers, “a calm investigation of the most important questions that can occupy the attention of the statesman and the moralist.” The liberal-international website describes the central thrust of 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.”


It is worth revisiting The Sphere and Duties of Government for its bold defense of liberty, at a time when almost any defense of liberty is laughed at rather than seriously considered:

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…

[T]he 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.

[I]f there is one thing…which absolutely requires free activity on the part of the individual, it is precisely education, whose object it is to develop the individual…when the citizens of a State [are] expressly trained up with a view to their political character …the very object would be sacrificed which the association of human beings in a community was designed to secure.

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.

A State, in which the citizens were compelled…to obey even the best of laws…[is] a multitude of well cared-for slaves, rather than a nation of free and independent men, with no restraint save such as was required to prevent any infringements on right.

All political arrangements, in that they have to bring a variety of widely-discordant interests into unity and harmony, necessarily occasion manifold collisions…The more active the State is, the greater is the number of these. If it were possible to make an accurate calculation of the evils which police regulations occasion, and of those which they prevent, the number of the former would, in all cases, exceed that of the latter.

[T]he State organism is merely a subordinate means, to which man, the true end, is not to be sacrificed…nothing can be necessary in order to preserve security which tends precisely to repress freedom, and along with it this very security itself.

[I]n order to provide for the security of its citizens, 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, as wholly foreign to the sphere of the State’s activity.

[T]he protection of the rights of others affords the only just ground for these restrictions…For to put an end to strife and dissensions among the citizens is the only true interest of the State.

For where rights are infringed on…it is clearly the duty of the State to restrict them, and compel the agents to repair the injury they have inflicted. But…actions do no violence to right except when they deprive another of a part of his freedom or possessions without, or against, his will.

[A]s the State is not allowed to propose any other end to its activity than the security of its subjects, it may not impose restrictions on any other actions than those which run counter to this ultimate object…to punish actions…which relate to the agent only, or which are done with the consent of the person who is affected by them, is manifestly forbidden…”

[N]atural and general right is the sole true basis of all positive law… therefore we should always revert to that natural foundation; and hence that no one can at any time, or in any way, obtain any right with regard to the powers or means of another against or without his will.

[T]he solicitude…for the necessary chiefly requires negative measures; since, owing to the vigorous and elastic strength of man’s original power, necessity does not often require anything save the removal of oppressive bonds.

Wilhelm von Humboldt derived the need to limit government solely to its one means of benefitting society–the provision of security that citizens could not provide for themselves without it—because, in Ralph Raico’s words, “force necessarily interferes with individual self-development.” As a result, “Humboldt thus allies himself with the thinkers who rejected the state in order to affirm society.” Given how much government now affirms itself to the detriment of the individuals who comprise society, it is worth remembering Humboldt’s insights into liberty and what generated them.

I have felt myself animated throughout with a sense of the deepest respect for the inherent dignity of human nature, and for freedom, which is alone becoming that dignity.


Contact Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Thomas DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland and a member of the senior faculty of the Mises Institute. He is the author of The Real Lincoln; How Capitalism Saved America; Lincoln Unmasked; Hamilton's Curse; Organized Crime: The Unvarnished Truth About Government; and The Problem with Socialism.

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