The Limits of State Action  

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According to Noam Chomsky, analysis of the psychological implications of wage slavery goes back to the Enlightenment era. In his 1791 book The Limits of State Action, classical liberal thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt explained how "whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness" and so when the laborer works under external control, "we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is". Because they explore human authority and obedience, both the Milgram and Stanford experiments have been found useful in the psychological study of wage-based workplace relations.

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The Limits Of State Action (original German title Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen) is a philosophical treatise by Wilhelm von Humboldt, which is a major work of the German Enlightenment. Though written in the early 1790s, it was not published in its entirety until 1852, long after von Humboldt's death in 1835. It was a significant source for the ideas that John Stuart Mill popularized in his 1859 book On Liberty, and is discussed favorably by Mill in the third chapter of that work, "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being." Mill had access to an 1854 English translation under the title The Sphere and Duties of Government.

Humboldt defines the criteria by which the permissible limits of the state's activities may be determined. His basic principle, like that of Mill, is that the only justification for government interference is the prevention of harm to others. He discusses in detail the role and limits of the state's responsibility for the welfare, security and morals of its citizens.

Wilhelm von Humboldt describes his purpose in writing The Limits of State Action as: "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." Many commentators believe that Humboldt’s discussion of issues of freedom and individual responsibility possesses greater clarity and directness than John Stuart Mill’s. “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.

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