The Sphere and Duties of Government
by Wilhelm von Humboldt, translated by Joseph Coulthard
On the Solicitude of the State for Security More Accurately and Positively Defined—Further Development of the Idea of Security
2550532The Sphere and Duties of Government — On the Solicitude of the State for Security More Accurately and Positively Defined—Further Development of the Idea of SecurityJoseph CoulthardWilhelm von Humboldt



After having now completed the more important and difficult portions of the present inquiry, and approached nearer to the solution of the great problem which it involves, it becomes necessary to review its progress up to this point, and endeavour to sum up its results.

Firstly, then, we have seen sufficient reasons for withdrawing the exercise of State solicitude from all such objects as do not immediately relate to the external or internal security of its citizens. In the second place, this same security has been represented as the real object of political activity; and, lastly, it has been agreed, that no efforts are allowable for the promotion of this object which are designed to operate on the morals and character of the nation itself, or to impart or counteract in them any definite direction. To a certain extent, therefore, the question as to the proper limits of State agency appears to be already fully solved, seeing that the sphere of this agency is confined to the preservation of security; and as to the means available for that purpose, still more narrowly restricted to those which do not interfere, for State ends, with the development of national character, or, rather, do not mould and fashion it with a view to those ends. For although, it is true, this definition is so far purely negative, yet that which remains after this abstraction of different departments of solicitude is of itself sufficiently distinct. That is, it is evident that political activity can only extend its influence to such actions as imply a direct trespass on the rights of others; to the task of deciding in cases of disputed right; to redressing the wronged, and punishing the wrong-doers. But the idea of security,—towards defining which, nothing further has been observed than that it embraces security against the attacks of foreign enemies, and against the aggressive spirit of fellow-citizens,—is too wide and comprehensive not to require some more special exposition. For, just as there are great and important differences between the modifications brought about by that advice which only seeks to persuade, and those consequent on importunate recommendation, and between these and the influence of positive coercion; and just as the degrees of unfairness and injustice may vary, from actions exercised within the limits of one's own right, but possibly hurtful to another, to those which likewise do not trespass those limits, but often or always tend to disturb some other in the enjoyment of his own, and again from these to actual encroachments on another's rightful property; just in like manner does the idea of security vary in extent and application, since we may understand it of security against some particular kind or degree of coercive influence, or against some certain extent of wrong. Now this very interpretation of the term security is of extreme importance; and if it is received in a too vague or, on the other hand, too narrow and restricted sense, all lines and limits are confused; while, without some distinct definition, it is impossible to re-adjust those limits and repair that confusion.

Again, the active means to be entrusted to the State for the promotion of its ends, once determined, constitute the subject of a still more accurate and minute investigation. For, although we have disapproved of any attempt on the part of the State, directed to the reformation of morals, there still remains, in this respect, too large and indefinite a field for political enterprise. There has been but little decided, for example, as to the bearing of restrictive enactments on those actions which immediately violate the rights of others; and as to how far the State may proceed in preventing actual crimes by stopping up their sources, not in the character of the citizens, but in the opportunities which facilitate their commission. Now, how far and dangerously it is possible to err in this respect, is already shown by the fact that the very solicitude for freedom has disposed more than one of singular judgment and penetration, to make the State responsible for the whole welfare of its citizens; believing that such a comprehensive arrangement would serve to promote all free and spontaneous activity. I am therefore ready to confess, in view of these considerations, that I have as yet done nothing but separate such large tracts as lie clearly without the circle of political activity, and have not yet endeavoured to draw its precise demarcations; more especially wherever its limits were questionable or unsettled.

This therefore still remains to be done; and, even though I may not be wholly successful in the attempt, it yet seems well for me to ascertain the reasons for the failure, and represent the difficulties incident to the inquiry as clearly and fully as possible. And, in any case, I hope to conclude the subject in a short compass, as all the principles I require for the task have been already discussed and settled, as far as my abilities would allow.

I call the citizens of a State 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; and hence I would call security (if the expression does not seem too brief for distinctness) the assurance of legal freedom. Now this security is not of necessity disturbed by all such actions as impede a man in the free exercise of his powers, and in the full enjoyment of all that belongs to him, but only by those which do this unrightfully. This sense which we assign to the word, and the definition just adapted to express it, are not to be supposed arbitrarily chosen and appended. Both follow immediately from our previous conclusions; and it is only with this sense of the term security, that our former reasoning can find application. For it is only actual violations of right which require any other power to counteract them than that which every individual himself possesses; it is the prevention of such violations alone which is pure gain to true development, while every other manifestation of political enterprise throws nought but obstacles in its way; and, lastly, it is this State-duty alone which has its source in the infallible precepts of absolute necessity, while every other is based on the shifting ground of a utility, estimated according to weak and treacherous probabilities.

Those whose security is to be preserved are, on the one hand, all the citizens, in perfect legal equality, and, on the other, the State itself. The extent of this latter object, or the security of the State, is determined by the extent of the rights assigned to it, and through these by the nature and extent of its aims. As I have hitherto argued, it may not demand security for anything save the power entrusted to its hands, and the resources allotted to its disposal. Further, it should not, with a view to this security, restrict the citizen when, without violating any actual right (and hence, with the understanding that he is not bound to the State by any personal or temporary relation, as, for instance, in time of war), he would withdraw himself or his property from the political community. For the State organism is merely a subordinate means, to which man, the true end, is not to be sacrificed; unless such a collision should occur as that in which the individual would not be bound to surrender himself, and yet the community would possess the right of taking him as a sacrifice. Moreover, according to our former principles, the State is denied all positive solicitude for the citizen's welfare; and nothing can be necessary in order to preserve security which tends precisely to repress freedom, and along with it this very security itself.

Disturbances of security are occasioned either by actions which violate in themselves the rights of others, or by those which only imply the apprehension of this in their consequences. Now, both these kinds of action (with certain modifications which will shortly occupy our attention) are to be prohibited by the State, and, as far as this can be done, prevented; when once they are committed, it must try to render them, as far as possible, innoxious, by extending legal redress for the wrong sustained, and by punishment, to lessen the frequency of such actions in future. From the necessity for these duties (to adhere to the terms usually employed), come police, civil and criminal laws. In addition to these, however, there comes another object under the general head of solicitude for security; and, on account of its peculiar nature, it requires a wholly distinct treatment. There is a class of citizens to whom the principles we have unfolded (since they presuppose men to be in the enjoyment of their natural faculties) can only be accommodated with considerable modifications. I allude to those who have not yet arrived at the age of maturity, or who, through idiocy or m mania, have not the use of their proper human powers. It is evident that the State must provide as well for the security of such persons; and as we can easily foresee, their peculiar position must require a special policy to be adopted towards them. We must therefore, in the last place, consider the relation in which the State stands to all infants among its citizens, in character (to use the familiar expression) of their chief guardian.

Having before sufficiently treated of security against foreign enemies, I believe I have now succeeded in marking out all the objects towards which the State is to direct its active solicitude. Far from pretending to penetrate at all profoundly into all the great and difficult subjects I have enumerated, I shall be content to develope the fundamental principles in each, as briefly as possible, and as far as comes within the scope of my present design. It is only when this has been done that we can regard our endeavour as complete—that we can suppose ourselves to have attempted to exhaust the proposed question in all its important bearings, and to trace on all sides the proper boundary-lines of political activity.