Bryan Caplan  

Thomas Szasz: A Life Well-Lived

PRINT
Social Desirability Bias vs. I... Debt: The Stickiest Price of A...
My great hero Thomas Szasz has died at the age of 92.  I only met him once, but what a meeting!  The year was 2005.  I won the Thomas Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties for my article, "The Economics of Szasz." After the ceremony, I dined with the legend and had one of the best conversations of my life.  He was by far the sharpest man in his eighties I've ever met - still ready, willing, and able to absorb and critique novel ideas.

Szasz's single best book is probably Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences.  But if you want to see his greatness as quickly as possible, start with his best book of aphorisms: The Untamed Tongue.

For now, I'm too sad to say more.  I'll miss you, Tom.

szasz.jpg 


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (13 to date)
Ken B writes:

A real loss. My favourite observation from Szasz is about the law and psychiatry. He noted psychiatrists only get involved in the law either to make sure those who commited a crime go free, or those who committed no crime get locked up.

Ross Levatter writes:

Your devastation is not suffered alone. Tom and I had communicated by email less than a month ago. I still have emails from him in my inbox awaiting a response, one of the dangers of procrastination Tom warned about.

Tom's work was tragically underappreciated, even by libertarians. His was one of the great minds of the 20th century, and as things are looking now, of the 21st...

RH writes:

"He was by far the sharpest man in his eighties I've ever met - still ready, willing, and able to absorb and critique novel ideas."

That's depressing, as it implies that Caplan, who presumably talks to a lot of older intellectual types, observes that those in their 80s are noticeably slower.

Are the experiences of others here similar?

chipotle writes:

I heard Milton Friedman give a speech when he was 84. The words were a little slow out of his mouth but the insights were dazzling. (I was 17.)

Professor Caplan, I assume that you had a conversation with Friedman between 1992 and 2002. What was your perception of him in his 80s? (It is no shame for a Nobel Laureate to be slowing down in his ninth decade!)

Mark writes:

For those of us who have actually had family members with severe mental illness, Dr Szasz's theories have long been known to be utter nonsense.

The use of the term "mental illness" has become significantly overused in recent decades as the psychiatric profession tries to medicalize everything about human thought. Nonetheless, the failure of Szasz and his followers to draw any distinctions between "I'm feeling a little depressed or anxious" and schizoprenia made it clear that they were the ones who could not deal with reality when it clashed with their theories.

Those of us who remember this issue from the 60s and supported reform of the existing mental health system saw it highjacked by a bizarre coalition of liberal do-gooders and liberterians devoted to destroying the system, leaving the wreckage that we still have today. For more on this disaster please read Clayton Cramer's "My Brother Ron".

chipotle writes:

As I understand it, most of the world (the part that pays attention to such things, anyway) only knows one Szasz book: The Myth of Mental Illness.

Lee Killough writes:

Szasz has been frequently misinterpreted, e.g., he does not say that conditions of suffering the culture calls “mental illness” do not exist, or that psychoactive drugs cannot or should not help people. He simply objects to any and all coercion, which too frequently psychiatry employs, and he expects precise physical lesions when talking about “mental illnesses” as real “diseases”. When such lesions are actually found in medicine, e.g., syphilis, the symptoms cease being called “mental illnesses” and stop being handled by psychiatrists, which almost proves his point. He also rails against the illogic that since a drug helped someone, it necessarily proves a disease or chemical imbalance existed. No, it simply means a drug helped someone, just like caffeine does — is coffee drinking proof of caffeine deficiency disease? Prescribing psychiatric drugs is an art just as much as there’s any science involved in it. Why then should this be state-regulated, with monopoly power to prescribe psychoactive drugs being given only to state-licensed psychiatrists, who no doubt serve state interests as much if not more than patient interests? And since they serve state interests, does this not inevitably lead to coercion, such as the recent case of Brandon Raub being forcibly hospitalized by the state for his political Facebook postings?

Never in my life have I read or seen a more stronger advocate against coercion in general, than Thomas S. Szasz.

Nick writes:

Mark states 'Dr Szasz's theories have long been known to be utter nonsense.'

Written from a position of utter ignorance. RIP Dr. Szasz.

Jim Rose writes:

Szasz did not deny that there is bizarre behaviour and that people have problems with living and with coping with each other. May he rest in peace.

In his economics of szasz, Bryan's best point is the range of human desires and viewpoints is amazingly wide and one of the lessons of novels and plays is that a character’s superficially inexplicable behaviour becomes intelligible once you see it from their perspective.

Bryan is not so strong when he argues that the ability of drugs to change brain chemistry and behaviour does nothing to show that the initial behaviour was sick. Alcohol makes people less shy but it is no evidence that shyness is a disease.

The truly bizarre and destructive behaviour that drugs temper suggest something deeper is going on and may just need a better description than illness.

Ken b, good point that psychiatrists only get involved in the law either to make sure those who commited a crime go free or those who committed no crime get locked up.

david nh writes:

@ Jim Rose:

In his economics of szasz, Bryan's best point is the range of human desires and viewpoints is amazingly wide and one of the lessons of novels and plays is that a character’s superficially inexplicable behaviour becomes intelligible once you see it from their perspective.

Thanks for this quote. Before I read the quote, I was wondering how someone could simultaneously be a fan of Kahneman and Szasz, as Caplan apparently is. Now I am wondering even more.

Petra writes:

Someone said: "For those of us who have actually had family members with severe mental illness, Dr Szasz's theories have long been known to be utter nonsense."

You must have been greatly relieved when the genetic and neurobiological tests came back to tell you that you were right to write your loved one off as brain diseased.

I'm glad I had a more freethinking set of family members than your family member evidently had.

caltrek writes:

"As I understand it, most of the world (the part that pays attention to such things, anyway) only knows one Szasz book: The Myth of Mental Illness."

Guilty as charged.

From what I do remember, Szasz seemed to imply that mental illness was a myth because most people who were classsified as "mentally ill" were in reality "slackers".

As if everybody were exposed to the same level of trauma in their lives. As we say in the world of Star Trek, "beam me up Scotty". As in, it is getting a bit dicey here, do you think you can extricate me from this situation?

So what is rational, and what is irrational? The escapist, or the guy who is going to cling to the idea of being normal, no matter what?

Steph writes:

I met Dr Szasz at a talk he gave in London; he was 90.

He would listen to an argument, rephrase it and parse it into several pieces, and then address each part wonderfully, devastatingly, humorously, subtly, warmly, intelligently...

It was a joy to see.
I was left wondering if he was less, or more, adroit in his age -after >50y of practice.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top