Bryan Caplan  

The Best of Szasz

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Greed and Price-Gouging... ATTENTION: Szasz Prize Change ...

People occasionally ask me what Thomas Szasz's best works are. The optimal introduction is The Untamed Tongue. It's a book of aphorisms that cuts to the heart of his philosophy of mind. If it doesn't make you worry that there's something fundamentally rotten in the psychiatric worldview, nothing will.

If The Untamed Tongue piques your interest, but you want arguments instead of aphorisms, then I suggest you move on to Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences.

P.S. Check out the press release for the 2005 Szasz Prize. The prize ceremony is 6 PM Wednesday, September 21st at the Harper Library at the GMU Law School in Arlington. If you live in the D.C. area, you'd be crazy not to be there!



COMMENTS (11 to date)
David Thomson writes:

Thomas Szasz is an extremist libertarian who has done enormous damage. He may the individual mostly responsible for the plight of those suffering mental illness not receiving the care they so desperately need. The next time you see a derelict urinating in the street---you should perhaps blame Thomas Szasz. He has made it next to impossible to address this national crisis. Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness is one of the worst books of the 20th Century.

Randy writes:

David,

Should derelicts who urinate in the street be locked up? I mean, a counseling session isn't going to stop them from doing it. Perhaps they should only be locked up if they become repeat offenders. What about people who do no harm of any kind but, do to some "disorder", cannot maintain a "normal", work ethic based, middle class lifestyle?

You see, the alternative to "extreme libertarianism", as you put it, is to place the freedom of human beings in the hands of a self selected group who judge, not on the basis of legal or illegal, but on the basis of normal or abnormal.

Timothy writes:

Hey, so long as nobody else is forced to pay for those who can't support themselves, I've no problem letting them loose.

But you go deal with a schizophrenic for an afternoon and then tell me that mental illness isn't real.

Randy writes:

Timothy,

"Is mental illness real?" I don't think that is quite the correct question. How about these...

Do some people behave abnormally? Yes.

Is there a cause for their abnormal behavior? Yes.

Is the cause physical? Sometimes. And sometimes it is, as Bryan suggests, an extreme preference.

Should people exhibiting abnormal behavior be helped? If they ask for help, yes. Those who seek assistance can be guided and/or medicated towards a more normal existance - which they might or might not prefer.

Should normal people be protected from people who exhibit abnormal behavior? If the abnormal behavior is also criminal behavior, yes. We should lock up criminals, not the abnormal.

Mentally ill? Perhaps. Or maybe just different.

Timothy writes:

Randy,

I think those are much better questions and I agree in principle with your answers. It seems like maybe persuading people to seek treatment could follow the sort of model that's used for interventions with drug addicts and the like, although it's tough to see how that would work for somebody who has paranoid schizophrenia, for instance. I think in some, fairly rare, circumstances it's probably appropriate for immediate family and loved ones to place a person in care. Although it likely happens more often that is really warranted, especially with things like ADD/ADHD which, honestly, seem to indicate that teachers are boring more than kids having problems.

Randy writes:

Timothy,

It seems to me we are dangerously close to a Brave New World in which abnormal behavior, even a slight deviation, is seen as a threat which must be treated or medicated out of existance.

ADHD is one very good example. How about ED? Do the guys really have a problem or is it just a natural consequence of staying married to a woman who's a bit past her prime. Should we medicate women who claim too frequent "headaches"?

Or what about poverty. Some people don't have a work ethic. But is that a problem? Human beings existed for thousands of years at a subsistance level, and there are many who prefer to do the same today. Poverty isn't a problem to be solved, its an abnormal behavior to be accepted.

I think Szasz is correct to challenge our beliefs, and I like Bryan's take as well.

Timothy writes:

Randy,

Like I said, I think ADHD is probably the single most over-diagnosed "condition" in the world. I also wonder about the long-term consequences of giving large numbers of kids speed-like drugs for long periods of time. School is boring, kids have short attention spans for boring things, the solution isn't medicate kids, it's to make school more interesting. But that would, of course, require school teachers to actually work for a living and we can't have that.

ED? Well, there's definitely some physiological basis for that, in at least many cases, and if you want to take one of the many spam-filtered pills to remedy it, I'm not going to stop you. Nor am I going to say anybody should.

Poverty? There's no microeconomic justification for what we call the "poverty line", and thusly poverty is some arbitrarily defined normative value. I don't like relative measures of poverty for exactly that reason, because if you define poverty as "X% below the median" then there will always be that many in poverty. It's defined as unsolvable. I'm perfectly willing to accept poverty, so long as nobody compells me to pay for the lazy no-accounts who refuse to better themselves.

And I agree that practically everything is a disorder now. I probably "suffer" from OCD, and a little anxiety, but I don't really think demanding that my cabinets be closed, performing my shower routine in exactly the same order every day and being a little tense all the time really has any adverse effect on my life. I did, in fact, suffer from depression for about a year back in college, and a therapist coupled with a pretty short stint of SSRI was immensely helpful in that.

The practical upshot, I think, is we need to be much more judicious about how large a deviation from the mean really constitutes a problem. There's a big difference between having some ticks, or some odd habits (like the girl I knew who kept all her legos organized by color, shape, and size), and thinking the ATM is giving you instructions from a hyper-powerful space-dwelling entity. But I don't think all of psychaitry is quackery either.

Randy writes:

Timothy,

I don't think its all quackery either. I think psychiatric professionals have the ability to move people closer to the norm through a variety of approaches. And if an individual indicates a desire to move closer to the norm, then all well and good.

This conversation does make me curious as to when the profession moved away from the avoidance of value judgements, as indicated by the use of terms like normal and abnormal, and towards such judgemental terms as "disorder". My guess is that the profession simply gave the public what it was asking for.

Timothy writes:

Randy,

That is an interesting question.

David Thomson writes:

Thomas Szasz is unwittingly a nihilist---and hostile towards democracy. He is a quintessential example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Mental illness is indeed a debatable concept. Still, a viable society must do the best that it can. We can substantially distinguish between insanity and mere eccentricity. Not to do so dooms us to return to an era of Hobbesian savagery.

The fear of the “slippery slope” is justified. And yet, we must sometimes take the risk. This is intrinsically unavoidable. The absolutist libertarians are right about 90% of the time. It’s the last 10% of their thinking that must be categorically rejected.

Randy writes:

David,

To me, an "absolutist libertarian" is one who believes that the government should provide only minimal services. People accepting responsibility for themselves hardly seems like "Hobbesian savegery" to me. Indeed, I suggest that the road to savegery runs in the opposite direction.

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