Bryan Caplan  

They Called Me Mad: "The Economics of Szasz" Gets Published

The COA Club... Fiscal Titanic...

People thought I was crazy to to write - let alone try to publish - "The Economics of Szasz." This analysis of the economics of mental illness has got to be the least-publishable article I ever wrote. And now it's finally appeared in Rationality and Society 18(3): 333-66 (August 2006). Depending on where you're reading this, you may be able to download it here; if you can't, check out the draft version.

While I was writing this article, I often thought, "This is already so objectionable that there's no point cutting stuff to placate the referees." So when a quote from Tolkien's Return of the King seemed perfect, it went in. Go straight to endnote #16.

Refereeing is supposed to raise the quality of scholarship, but at least for me, the main effect is to make my writing less fun.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Tim Lundeen writes:

I think I actually started following your blog after I read a draft of this paper :-)

Matthew Cromer writes:

This sounds like it will be a great paper. Thanks for letting us take a look at it!

ryan writes:

"Refereeing is supposed to raise the quality of scholarship, but at least for me, the main effect is to make my writing less fun."

Is that supposed to be a "but", and not a "and therefore"? More or less anything intended to increase quality -- successfully or not -- makes things less fun

Tom West writes:

An interesting paper, if one that makes my skin crawl. But I'm not certain how it deals with the fact that many people with severe mental illnesses kill themselves in an attempt to escape their suffering.

As I read it, the paper makes the claim that mentally ill people simply want to express their symptoms more than they desire "normality". But if expressing one's symptoms makes one so miserable one kills oneself, it doesn't seem like a desire to express the symptom so much as a compulsion.

The "gun-to-the-head" test also seems pretty iffy. Most mentally ill might be capable of short burst of normality under such circumstance but would end up getting their brains blown out in short order, much as a physically ill person might be able to manifest unusual strength for a short period of time before collapse.

However, the paper *does* hammer home that mental illnesses are fundamentally different from physical illnesses. Study of mental illness can make us question what the fundamental "you" actually means. How are "you" a good person if a few chemical changes can make you a dangerous maniac? If those chemical changes take place, are you the same person? What is free will in the face of mental illness?

All discomforting questions...

Bill writes:

Very good and thought-provoking article.

One thing worth noting about Nash's experience is that skizophrenia tends to get worse as people become adults, and then get better as they get older. Whether this is because it is more like a "sickness" that people recover from, or whether it is just people getting tired of their imaginations is of course up for debate. But, assuming that it is a disease, then I can easily see Nash "naturally" getting better and then attributing it all to his superior reasoning and intellect.

As for the gun to the head test, as well as mentioning incentives:
I think you have to be careful what incentive-based experiments tell us. Yes, it does not make sense that people who believe they are gods will suddenly start making their beds and showering if you give them cupcakes. But, this doesn't have to mean they can control their craziness, it could just mean they like cupcakes and are crazy. It also doesn't mean that they value cupcakes more than being crazy. In other words, their craziness probably isn't logical. If say homosexuals were awarded, or perhaps more accurately, not punished, for acting straight, then yes, any economist will tell you behavior of the costly activity will go down. That doesn't change what somebody feels or thinks though.

I mean, say someone really believes they were a King of the Universe. Now you show them a cupcake and tell them to stop striking everyone for being insolent and you will give them a cupcake. They agree and get the cupcake. They could still be crazy, they still believe what they did before, but now they have a cupcake.

mobile writes:

I dunno. "Those mullahs with the extreme preferences" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

TGGP writes:

Q: If a man is crazy but does not act crazy, would anybody care?

Ben writes:

Another great economics paper.

Punchline: If you put a gun to people's head, you can make them act in ways that they normally wouldn't! Who would have thought?

Rob writes:

Just to be clear about who you are quoting:

Thomas Szasz

This is the "basis for Tom Cruise's rant against Brook Shields" Thomas Szasz. I really thought you were a brighter guy than this.

Ben writes:

I nearly forgot: What about people with chronic back pain? They usually don't lift heavy things. But i'm sure if you put a gun to their head, they would. Does that mean that people with back pains are not really ill, but simply have a low preference for lifting stuff?

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