Libertarianism Loses A Great Warrior

Dave Killion — September 12, 2012

On September 8, psychiatrist and scholar Thomas Szasz passed away at the age of 92. His death has been marked by a great many testimonials throughout the libertarianism blogosphere, my favourite being that of the Cato Institute’s Trevor Burrus –

“Szasz advocated for individual liberty from a substantially different point of view than most libertarian intellectuals. Rather than focusing on economic arguments or political philosophy, Szasz focused on personal responsibility and how the institutions and practices of modern psychiatry fundamentally undermine the rights and responsibilities of individuals.”

“…Szasz believed mental illness to be a “myth”: If we call someone “mentally ill” without reference to a physical brain disorder but only as a “problem” with her behavior, then we are describing something that is difficult, if not impossible, to objectively quantify. We must invoke some norm to make our diagnosis more than a subjective opinion about “divergent” behavior. If homosexuality is a mental illness, then the norm of heterosexuality is presumed. If marital infidelity is a mental illness, then the norm of fidelity is presumed. Without any appeal an objective criterion we will inevitably institutionalize people based on our opinions about their personalities. As Szasz says, the obvious question always arises: “What kinds of behavior are regarded as indicative of mental illness, and by whom?”

As demonstrated by the Rosenhan Experiment, making such a determination appears to be beyond the talents of even trained professionals. Yet the legitimacy that psychiatry provides to the state’s ability to confine and drug people, without their consent and without trial, has proven irresistible not just to tyrannical governments, but even those thought to be more benevolent.

It was Thomas Szasz who taught us that psychiatry, when used in the legal system, is a tool for imprisoning innocent people, and for freeing criminals. For that insight alone, we are lucky to have had him on our side.

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