The Limits of State Action

The Limits of State Action

You don’t like (very much) government intervention, and neither do I. Wilhelm von Humboldt didn't either.

What upsets you even more is the difficulty in identifying whether, in some more or less extreme cases, government encroachment into private life and our affairs is legitimate or justifiable.

Given that the government (for now) exists, do you have a clear idea of what constitutes legitimate government intervention and what should be strictly prohibited? Do you possess a solid theoretical framework or set of values that allow you to discern policies, laws, and measures that fall within the limits of state action and those that do not?

This was Wilhelm von Humboldt’s goal.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)

The Book in 1'

In The Limits of State Action (also known as 'The Spheres and Duties of Government'), written in the 1790s but first published only in 1852, Humboldt critiques the government's benevolent paternalism and its positive (read: active) intervention. This book stands against the Welfare State.

However, contrary to what one might expect, Humboldt does not base any of his arguments on the concept of 'natural law' and 'natural rights.' He leans more towards consequentialism.

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Consequentialism = State intervention is not deemed bad because it infringes alleged natural rights, but because of the consequences it brings about, such as weakening the moral fiber of citizens, flattening the social landscape, and introducing bureaucracy and waste.

Humboldt views the task of defining the exact sphere to which the government, once constructed, should extend or confine its operations as the crucial element when framing a political constitution. It's not so much about who should govern and who should be governed, but rather about determining the limits of this government.

The primary concern is that if the spheres of government are not clearly defined, government interventions may change arbitrarily, often unnoticed by citizens until the damage is already done.

Historically, Humboldt points out that public opinion has often shifted towards more government intervention. The prevalent idea is that the state "can bestow something more than mere security," and that the subsequent limitation of liberty does not matter much after all.

How far can this go? The basis for deciding where to draw the line lies in whether the restriction of freedom and government intervention align with 'the highest ends of human existence,' namely, individual flourishing and the pursuit of happiness.

“The true end of Man… is the highest and most harmonious development of his power to a complete and consistent whole.”

The duty of the government is preventing evil, that is, provide security.

The Problem of Security

Security is when individual rights are not infringed, and citizens can fully enjoy their lives living together. It’s when there are no external threats to their rights. Security for Humboldt is “the assurance of legal freedom.”

And nothing that tends to suppress freedom can be considered necessary for preserving security, when it undermines both freedom and security itself.

In providing security what matters most are the tools that the State will use. Humboldt is clear that providing security does NOT mean State agency, it is the opposite of Positive Welfare. Precisely, security does not imply:

  • Poor-laws
  • Subsidies (to industry, agriculture, and commerce)
  • Regulations to finance and currency, imports and exports
  • Measures employed to remedy or prevent natural devastation
  • Every political institution designed to preserve or augment the physical welfare of the nation

State intervention is not inherently bad, but it can lead citizens to rely on the government rather than their own means. Its negative impact lies in its potential to alter the character of people. In fact, State action

“accustoms men to look for instruction, guidance, and assistance from without, rather than to rely upon their own expedients.”

At the same time, it fosters uniformity, as individuals begin to conform to the behaviors prescribed by the government, pursuing professions dictated by the government and receiving State education.

Humboldt's primary concern lies in this transformation of individuals into mere machines, rather than active resources for the nation. State intervention erases individuality and differences among people by imposing one-size-fits-all solutions. Consider public schools, for instance. They offer the same education to a diverse mix of individualities. How can this possibly celebrate differences and individual inclinations?

The Problem of Bureaucracy

Not only does state intervention hinder human development, but it also leads to the expansion of bureaucracy. Instead of facilitating the relationship between citizens and the state, bureaucracy makes it more complex, distant, and bewildering for citizens.

“In every decennial period the number of the public officials and the extent of registration increase, while the liberty of the subject proportionately declines.”

The relationship between the citizen and the state is of utmost importance to Humboldt. When a citizen enjoys freedom and can spontaneously engage with the state, it is conducive to a healthy interaction. That is, when the state refrains from excessive intervention for the sake of positive welfare and merely ensures security. This interaction between the state and citizen is the only beneficial. However, be careful out there because:

“This salutary interaction always diminishes in proportion to the efforts made to fashion the citizen’s character beforehand, and to train him up from childhood with the express view of becoming a citizen.”

Which Limits?

For Humboldt, Security is the only justification for (negative!) state intervention as without Security there can be no freedom. This sentence fully summarizes Humboldt’s ultimate perspective:

The State is to abstain from all solicitude for the positive welfare of the citizens, and not to proceed a step further than is necessary for their mutual security and protection against foreign enemies; for with no other object should it impose restrictions on freedom.

My Take Today

Like many other books that attempt to limit government intervention that I've read, Humboldt, in my opinion, falls short of achieving this mission. As his argument unfolds, the distinction between 'what constitutes harm?' and the reasons for restricting an individual's rights to protect another becomes increasingly blurred. Ultimately, he grounds the principle guiding his theory in the 'principle of necessity.'

However, the language remains highly abstract, making it easier to deduce practical implications for government intervention than to defend individual rights.

Humboldt attempts to define terms such as 'Security' and 'Positive Welfare,' but I find his explanations lacking in fully clarifying when individual rights should take precedence over potential consequences.

He does grapple with concerns I share, such as how much prevention from potential offenses is justifiable and what defines an offense and is genuinely committed to the idea of individual freedom, or at least minimizing constraints for human development. However, at the end of the day—possibly because he leans towards consequentialism (though not a utilitarian by any means)—he falls short of addressing the problem of what we might call 'externalities' in a way that would prevent systematic state encroachment on individual rights. By the end of the book, I have a somewhat clearer idea of the limits of state action, but it remains unsatisfactory.

The line has been drawn somewhere in the air, but you cannot really see it.