The headline above this post is, admittedly, a somewhat hyperbolic provocation. But there's a case to be made for its literal truth. A writer idolized by the libertarian movement helped lay the groundwork for the Sandy Hook massacre and other expressions of violent madness.
Many gun rights advocates have argued, with much justification, that these outrages stem not from the availability of semi-automatic weapons but from the breakdown of our mental health system. We no longer lock away our mad; we leave them in the care of their families -- and if the families can no longer carry that burden, we let the mentally ill experience the freedom of homelessness.
Institutionalization costs money. Between 1962 and 1982, the American people made a series of decisions expressing the view that the rewards do not justify the expenditure. We are, however, willing to put mentally ill people in prisons
, even though prisons also cost money. Prison guards do not like that situation, but they must deal with it.
How did this happen? Ask a left-winger and he'll blame Reagan. Ask a right-winger and he'll blame JFK. In a way, they are both right.
In the 1950s, investigative reports sensitized Americans to the miserable conditions within mental health facilities, which were then largely funded (usually under
-funded) by the counties and states. The Kennedy administration initiated a program designed to move patients out of the “snake pits” and into an outpatient program overseen by federally-financed community care clinics. Conservatives generally supported the idea of closing down asylums.
Many accepted the views of Dr. Thomas Szasz, who, in a series of books, argued that mental illness does not even exist
After JFK’s death, the federal funding of outpatient care ran into severe obstacles, not least of which was the propaganda produced by the fringe right. On the radio and in their newsletters, the merchants of fear used the specter of -- I kid you not -- Russian "brainwashing" to whip up fury against any legislator who wanted to spend federal monies on mental health. Any attempts to provide humane aftercare for the mentally unstable were misrepresented as Soviet schemes, perpetrated by Marxists in Washington. This inane assessment somehow made sense to a large segment of the citizenry. (Morris Kominsky's book The Hoaxers
offers the details of this little-remember piece of political history.)
Szasz was the key figure in the de-institutionalization movement.
I recently took a look at his influential books, The Manufacture of Madness
, The Myth of Mental Illness
and Psychatric Slavery
. Szasz wrote these works to point out the genuine evils prevailing in the mental health institutions of his time. Undeniably, these human warehouses had a horrifying history, going back the once respected, now infamous Salpêtrière asylum in Paris. Szasz argued that the psychiatric asylum should be abolished, not reformed -- and he used Libertarian argot to justify his stance.
I offer a few representative excerpts from Szasz's book, Psychiatric Slavery
In everyday life we do not let people use the state's police power for settling any or all disagreements. People annoy and insult each other all the time, but as a rule they must live with each other as best they can, or separate. In the last analysis, psychiatric incarceration, although it is usually in a public hospital through a publicly administered procedure, is nevertheless a sort of private imprisonment sanctioned by the state.
Suffice it to say that a great deal of so-called psychiatric treatment has as its aim a change in the patient's beliefs and behavior. Regardless of their particular psychiatric persuasion, most psychiatrists -- and most non-psychiatrists -- agree with this view. If such a change of belief occurs voluntarily -- with the subject's consent and, indeed, with his active cooperation -- then it presents no special moral, legal, or constitutional issue. This sort of personality change falls readily into the general category of learning. However, what if such change in belief is imposed on a person against his will? It then presents a very obvious moral, legal and constitutional problem.
I do not see how it is possible to deny that coerced psychiatric personality change -- even (or especially) if it entails "helping" a person give up his "psychotic delusions" -- closely resembles coerced religious conversion. If so, it is obvious not only that there can be no such thing as a "right" to involuntary psychiatric treatment...but that such an involuntary intervention is itself a clear constitutional "wrong."
Szasz argued that what we call madness is simply an unpopular way of looking at the world. Thus, he believed that the ideal situation is, more or less, what we have right now: Schizophrenics and other deeply troubled individuals should be free to live on the streets, free to refuse drug therapy or other treatment. If they commit a serious crime, then and only then do they belong in the care of the state -- in the prison system.
As you may have guessed, Scientologists have always thought highly of Szasz. Back in the 1960s and early '70s, his books were also popular with a number of liberals. Why? The answer, I think, has much to do with that era's popular culture, which offered many narratives designed to persuade audiences that crazy is beautiful
. That mantra was the theme of such films as A Thousand Clowns
, They Might Be Giants
, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
, and King of Hearts
Nobody makes "crazy is beautiful" movies anymore. We have films like The Dark Knight
, dedicated to the proposition that crazy is crazy
In real life, mentally ill people rarely resemble Geneviève Bujold in King of Hearts
, prettily dancing through the streets in her ballerina skirt. In real life, the mad among us have made the news in very disturbing ways. Think of Seung-Hui Cho. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Adam Lanza. James Holmes. Perhaps this list should include Jimmy Lee Dykes, at the center of the current hostage drama in Alabama.
All of these individuals had displayed, before their rampages, the sort of behavior that, in an earlier time, might have brought them to the attention of state-employed psychiatrists. Think of the havoc wrought by these individuals, then re-read the words of Thomas Szasz, as reprinted above. If you're anything other than infuriated, you're not made of the same stuff I'm made of.
Although Szasz may have been embraced by some misguided liberals in the 1960s (beatniks and hippies were particularly susceptible to the "crazy is beautiful" meme), he continues to be championed by modern Libertarians. Szasz told the followers of Ayn Rand what they wanted to hear: The problem of insanity does not require any outlay of taxpayer money, and does not require any action on the part of the state.
Libertarian websites continue to view Szasz as something of a demigod. For examples, see here
. The last link goes to Reason.com; here's an excerpt:
Jacob Sullum and Jesse Walker have both done great jobs summing up the importance of Szasz; I have always found his own thoughts and expressions the best way to understand him. He was, in my judgement, one of the smartest and most thorough defenders of autonomy and liberty of our time, fighting against both his profession, most of the world, and often his own fellow libertarians, and succeding at a higher level than most (Szasz was actually a public intellectual of mass popularity in the 1960s/early 1970s.)
That's not a particularly well-written paragraph, but you get the idea.
Never underestimate the potential influence of any writer who can cobble together an impressive sequence of polysyllables designed to persuade readers that the government should not
spend money. If Szasz had not carried the day, Adam Lanza might now be alive and receiving the psychiatric care he obviously needed. A lot of small children would be alive as well.