Liberty Matters

Individualism, Welfare, and Freedom

If the purpose of a lead essay is to prepare a delicious feast for the reader while leaving enough room for the correspondents to make them look as if they were a useful part of the culinary team, then Michael Bentley is a chef as one would wish. 
In any case, I have only a few toppings to add. They relate to Humboldt’s State, his individualist approach in relation to the dictates of reason, negative and positive welfare, and the three things to ‘become.’ 
To start with Humboldt’s State, I wonder whether the frying time should be as long as suggested. By that I don’t mean the publication date, which – to my knowledge – was 1851 rather than 1852. What I have in mind is Humboldt’s State when he wrote what was later published as his Limits of State Action. Wasn’t his state already at the close of the 18th century “a state to delimit”? Take for instance Wöllner and the shape the Prussian Religious Edict of 1788 took under his aegis. Contrast the religious freedom the Edict granted to all Christian faiths with the prohibitions and rulings it included. Catholics and Jews had not to talk about their faith in public and were inhibited from proselytizing, while a very long list of religious rulings erased the variety of Protestant practises and favoured the wishes of the Concordantia Fratrum Roseae et aureae Crucis. Should that not make us think that Humboldt clearly wanted to delimit such state interventions? After all he suggested, 
that all which concerns religion lies beyond the sphere of the State’s activity; and that the choice of ministers, as well as all that relates to religious worship in general, should be left to the free judgment of the communities, without any special supervision on the part of the State. (56)
Of course, Humboldt did not live to see the fraternalistic welfare state of the mid-19th century, but did he not experience its forerunner, the paternalistic welfare state? Was Enlightened Despotism not already stretching out with each of its tentacles to reach almost all the spheres of the contemporaries Humboldt had in mind? 
Taking Humboldt at his word, don’t we have good reasons to assume that religion was not the only but only one out of many spheres where Humboldt’s State was active? 
I am speaking here, then, of the entire efforts of the State to elevate the positive welfare of the nation; of its solicitude for the population of the country, and the subsistence of its inhabitants, whether manifested directly in such institutions as poor laws, or indirectly, in the encouragement of agriculture, industry, and commerce; of all regulations relative to finance and currency, imports and exports, etc. (in so far as these have this positive welfare in view); finally, of all measures employed to remedy or prevent natural devastations, and, in short, of every political institution designed to preserve or augment the physical welfare of the nation. (17)
True, Humboldt did not describe all those state interventions in detail. His book is not a description of the welfare state, its systemic growth, and the inconsistent reactions in society and media to it. 
Take up a daily paper and you will probably find a leader exposing the corruption, negligence, or mismanagement of some State department. Cast your eye down the next column, and it is not unlikely that you will read proposals for an extension of State-supervision. Yesterday came a charge of gross carelessness against the Colonial Office. To-day Admiralty bunglings are burlesqued. To-morrow brings the question, "Should there not be more coal-mine inspectors?"’ (Over-Regulation, 1853, cited after Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State, with an Introduction by Albert Jay Nock, Caldwell 1960, 123)
Quotes like the one above we find nowhere in Humboldt’s Limits of State Action, but all over in Herbert Spencer, namely in his essay on Over-Regulation, published shortly after Humboldt’s Ideen. But although Humboldt had a different approach, it appears to me that he (rightly) thought he was facing a monster when writing about the state. Sure, the monster of the Enlightened Despotism had not the “desired doneness,” compared to the one “that some of us might call to mind in our own day.” It surely was different in size and complexion. However, I am afraid we hardly can say that Humboldt was not “hinting at the creeping, multi-layered, police-enforced, tentacular monster.”
Another topping I want to suggest pertains to the individualistic concept of Humboldt’s State. Agreed, “Humboldt begins with individuals,” but this is only part of the beginning, for it is not for them to decide on the shape and scope of the state. Shape and scope of the state are to be determined by the “true end of man,” namely “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.” To Humboldt, this end is “not suggested by vague and transient desires,” but “prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason.” (13)
As all conjurors of the dictates of reason do, Humboldt apparently believed he knew those dictates and wanted us to believe that he was right in his conception. Be that as it may, to Humboldt there are only few restrictions to individual liberty possible. He states two conditions to be necessary for man’s pursuit of his true end, namely “freedom and variety of situation.” Only if the exertion of the first endangers the second, then freedom should be restricted. This seems to be the core argument Humboldt uses when arguing for state abstinence or state action in protecting the liberty of individuals. Therefore, to him, a “contract which ends in the slavery of the person contracting” was not enforceable by law, no less were “fidei commissa.” (86) To Humboldt, the state should abstain from enforcing freedom of contract in such cases and should intervene when freedom of contract could be misused. “Taking away a man’s life with his own consent should be exempt from punishment, unless the dangerous abuse of this exemption should seem to necessitate a criminal law.” (86) There are a few other cases of that sort, where Humboldt allowed the state to deviate from the road of “negative welfare” and take the road of “positive welfare.” 
What is freedom good for, if its exertion may lead to its abandonment? The hidden argument behind that question is not implausible in the first place, but it is much less convincing at second glance. The threat of voluntary abandonment of freedom is a logical implication of freedom. Granting others (the state) the power to protect us against such “misuses” willy-nilly implies the abandonment of freedom. In other words, Humboldt’s state had a predetermined breaking point.
My final topping is more a suggestion to take away or replace one topping, namely “challenge” (the second of Bentley’s ‘things in order to become’), which I could not find in Humboldt, at least not among the two conditions he requires for the pursuit of man’s true end. Does not the challenge come along with the second condition “variety of situations”? Is not the logic of individual freedom in Humboldt that it allows individuals to increase said variety by interacting, while reducing such interactions by state interference into freedom lessens the natural scope of the situations spontaneously created? Is not the former the kind of negative welfare the state should promote, while the latter is the sort of positive welfare coming about by artificial increases of the “variety of situations” that Humboldt abhors?
The modern welfare state owes much of its charm to the idea that it artificially increases the variety of situations of the one who for lack of luck (endowments, talents, health, faculties) finds few opportunities on the market for the “development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.” By the same token, this idea takes away much of the monstrous impression the modern state otherwise may leave. However, the bigger the share of such artificial situations, the greater the uniformity among the situations and the lesser the challenge the individual needs to face in order to develop his powers. It is perhaps there where the second of the “things in order to become” comes in. 
It is not mainly for systemic reasons that Humboldt liked challenges which implied vital risks. Humboldt was a great admirer of those who looked for the greatest challenge and by doing so showed “spirit of daring, devotedness and self-sacrifice.” He “observed that all those situations in which contrasting extremes are most closely and variously intermingled, are the deepest and richest in interest, and conduce most remarkably to human development.” He thought that men “having the highest in view, can dare to set the highest at stake.” (36) He thought of both, of antique warriors and of contemporaneous adventurers, like Pilatre du Rozier, who lost his life in Montgolfiers’ balloon while trying to cross the canal.