The Limits of State Action / Edition 1

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The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument . . . unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.

This description by Wilhelm von Humboldt of his purpose in writing The Limits of State Action animates John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and serves as its famous epigraph. Seldom has a book spoken so dramatically to another writer. Many commentators even believe that Humboldt's discussion of issues of freedom and individual responsibility possesses greater clarity and directness than Mill's.

The Limits of State Action, by "Germany's greatest philosopher of freedom," as F. A. Hayek called him, has an exuberance and attention to principle that make it a valuable introduction to classical liberal political thought. It is also crucial for an understanding of liberalism as it developed in Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century. 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.

J. W. Burrow is Professor of History at the University of Sussex.

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Editorial Reviews

Humboldt's work was originally published in German in 1852. J.W. Burrow's edition, with his translation and substantial introduction, was published in 1969 by Cambridge U. Press; and it is his edition which is here reprinted by Liberty Fund, Inc., 8335 Allison Pointe Trail #300, Indianapolis, IN 46250-1687. Humboldt's argument holds that individual self-development can flower to the maximum extent only when governmental activity is limited to providing security, that is, preventing harm to others. His work is compared with John Stuart Mill's On Liberty in a chart format. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865971097
  • Publisher: Liberty Fund, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/1/1993
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,334,952

Table of Contents

Introduction 3 C H A P T E R I I
Of the individual man, and the highest ends of his existence 10 C H A P T E R I I I
On the solicitude of the State for the positive welfare of the citizen 16 C H A P T E R I V
Of the solicitude of the State for the negative welfare of the citizen n For his security 38 C H A P T E R V
On the solicitude of the State for security against foreign enemies 41 C H A P T E R V I
On the solicitude of the State for the mutual security of the citizens n Means for attaining this end n Institutions for reforming the mind and character of the citizen n National education 46 C H A P T E R V I I
Religion 53 C H A P T E R V I I I
Amelioration of morals 70 C H A P T E R I X
The solicitude of the State for security more accurately and positively defined n Further development of the idea of security 82 C H A P T E R X
On the solicitude of the State for security with respect to actions which directly relate to the agent only (Police laws) 86 C H A P T E R X I
On the solicitude of the State for security with respect to such of the citizens’ actions as relate directly to others (Civil laws) 94 C H A P T E R X I I
On the solicitude of the State for security as manifested in the juridical decision of disputes among the citizens 106 C H A P T E R X I I I
On the solicitude for security as manifested in the punishment of transgressions of the State’s laws (Criminal laws) 110 C H A P T E R X I V
On the solicitude of the State for the welfare of minors, lunatics, and idiots 127 C H A P T E R X V
Measures for the maintenance of the State n Completion of the theory 134 C H A P T E R X V I
Practical application of the theory proposed 139 Index 149
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