Friday, February 01, 2013

Did a Libertarian hero cause the Sandy Hook massacre?

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 and here and here. The last link goes to; 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.
"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."

Nice post, Joseph.

The word Libetarian, is, IMO, an oxymorn. The root word 'Liberty' has all the earmarks of NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard.

The reason I agree with the JFK derogation, is that I lived in Brooklyn N.Y. in the early to mid 70's. That's where I witnessed my first glimpse of homeless, grocery basket mental cases, discarded and forgotten.

It is important to remember that mental illness should not be sequestered into the all-encompassing cubby-hole of disrepute. Illness should be diagnosed and treated, but not with just psychotropic drugs. That's the lazy and short-sighted approach. Identification and treatment should occur early (pre-teen) rather than when the horse has left the barn.

Quite frankly, I liked 'they Might Be Giants' because it was the story of a man who was so pained by the harsh nature of life, that he chose an identity which could address the evils of the World with a harmless foray into helping others. That's not the persona of our recent, highly publicized nut cases. That's more about the rise of narcissism, and the consequences of failing to address self-centered psychology.

Thanks for addressing this, Joseph.


Libertarianism, taken to its logical end, is just 'nature, red in tooth and claw' wherein physical prowess is replaced by monopolistic property ownership. Co-opting the state to do not much else but protect that property ownership is just most of the history of the world. Liberty for the few.

Anatole France put it well when he gave thanks for living in a society where a millionaire and a pauper had an equal right to sleep under a bridge. Replace Darwin's 'fittest to survive' with 'most ruthless' or 'most sociopathic' and you have our present planet.

It took me threescore years to accept my own mental illness and abandon the illusory battle to bootstrap myself into normality and, by doing so, preserve my 'macho'. It's a mundane matter of early brain damage which I can't fix by will or good intentions. Unmedicated, I am sleepless, exhausted, chronically anxious, and fearful to an extreme. With a little help I'm just an everyday guy.

Mental illness exists and can be treated. The idiots who say it doesn't or who ascribe it to moral failure are the sickest ones. Fuck em.

I mean that in a nice way.
Szasz lost me a long time ago when he wrote he opposed the concept of public education.

Forget him.
Haven't posted here in a long time Joseph, but I am one of those old liberals who loves Szasz, just as I still love Ivan Illich - two of the greatest minds of the last century. My two most favorite writers. Szasz died last year, at age 92, but he was still lecturing up until then. I suggest you and your readers check out YouTube and listen to him, he is much more nuanced then you make out.
I leave you with this. Szasz said people believe a lot of crazy things, some people believe they are Jesus Christ and some people believe they are the chosen ones. That's from his book " schizophrenia, the sacred symbol of psychiatry".
Society, as of now, isn't really ready to deal with why people are crazy because psychiatry has been over taken by the pharmaceutical corporations that deal in death. The drugs may calm you down but they numb your brain and lead to kidney failure, heart disease and many other medical problems (see Illich for this - "Medical Nemesis" is a work of art).
It is my unpopular opinion that we don't want to listen to or deal with schizophrenics because then we'd have to deal with mostly young men in their 20's who have been abused, most often physically, specifically sexually. It's only in the last ten to twenty years that we, as a society, have even acknowledged such a crime happens.
If you've ever tried to get help for an abused male child, even in the most liberal/caring community you will see how often you are turned away.
This last paragraph is all mine, who knows, Szasz and Illich may have thought I was " crazy".
Kitty, I've dealt with a few schizophrenics. A friend of mine -- well, better perhaps to say that we once were on friendly terms -- developed many of the classic symptoms: Hearing voices, seeing hallucinations, chain-smoking, paranoia, flat "affectless" speech pattern, etc. When I suggested he seek help, he decided that I was one of his invisible persecutors and threatened violence.

Scary shit. No, I DON'T want to deal with the kind of person ever again.

I saw no reason to suspect childhood sexual abuse. Whatever the origin of his bizarre mental state may have been, I stopped caring. Sorry if that statement sounds callous, but while I may feel obliged to help a family member or a close friend, I didn't feel anything like that sense of obligation toward someone who was really just some guy who once shared a few of my interests.

His case, more than anything else, convinced me that Szasz was full of crap and that some people really need institutionalization. And, yes, drug therapy.
Well, you've got your wish, at least one of the two. Just about every other person I meet is on some kind of wonder drug. I think the statistics will bear this out. But no worry, the pharmaceutical company's love it.
Except people didn't turn against psychiatric incarceration because it would keep all the nuts off the streets, but because it was more commonly used to keep inconvenient relatives out of the way, to keep nonconformists where they could be made to conform, to warehouse people arrested under the influence of LSD and other hallucinogens, and suchlike.

Then, once inside, they were fair game. Drug 'em, put 'em in isolation for weeks, give 'em electrocutions to the brain, put 'em in insulin comas, it's all fine. It's better that a hundred crazed spree killers go free than that one innocent young casual drug user be continuously tortured for months on end.

Drugs are also massively overprescribed for psychiatric purposes, a related phenomenon. SSRIs, for example, are very good for people with severe clinical depression. For everyone else, which is to say at least 90% of those presecribed the drugs, they have no benefits and massively increase the risk of suicide. I know some people on anti-depressants, for no discernable reason, and I've heard one of them casually mention skipping work because some days he just knows if he sees anyone he's going to beat them to death, which he attributes to his drugs, as these happenings tend to follow changes in medication or dosage. Matthew Parris, a gay Tory (now former) MP, back in the 80s, did a programme for ITV where he went to Newcastle and lived like someone on the dole for a while, hilariously failing to get by without all the perks of eing a Tory MP. A few years ago he did it again, a "what's it like 20 years later" sort of thing. The biggest difference he noted was that everyone he met seemed to be heavily medicated the second time around. That, and the unemployed could no longer afford to go to the football.

Stephen, there was a time when I might have agreed with you. But now...well, I have to ask: Have YOU ever had extensive personal interaction with a family member with severe psychological issues?

Lots of people think that having someone with mental problems in the family would be quaint or romantic. You the uncle in "Arsenic and Old Lace" who thinks that he's Teddy Roosevelt. All very quaint and charming.

But in real life, such people are not quaint and charming. They are needy. They always seek attention. They are sometimes violent and they are often incredibly difficult.

I'm sorry, but in some cases, incarceration is the only solution.

I knew personally about one case in which a 90 year old man was hideously beaten by his unstable daughter, who had slowly lost her grip on reality over the preceding few years. I couldn't blame her -- she simply wasn't in her right mind -- but I did blame the system that made it impossible for her to be committed, even though she clearly should have been.

Drugs may be over-prescribed, but they can also be helpful. There are plenty of schizophrenics who stop hearing voices after they take Haldol.
"Nobody makes "crazy is beautiful" movies anymore" Respectfully, I recommend "Benji and Joon".

However, the serousness of this issue cannot be overstated

I will answer the headline question with another question: was the JFK assassination the result of lack of mental health care for LHO?

A sound syllogism might say yes in both cases. Only a crazed person would perform such an act for no reason (LHO stated no motive, of course, since he denied involvement-- obviously dissociated and crazed, then.) Since he/they DID perform such an act, then he/they must have been crazed.

A perfectly sound syllogism, but with a questionable premise. A false premise leads even an otherwise sound syllogism to a false conclusion.

If reports that Lanza made the SS death registry the day prior to this event are true, and if there is no reasonable explanation of that 'error,' then the premise in this case is false, just as most would agree it is also false in the case of LHO.

Unlike the case of LHO, I wouldn't assert evidence of Lanza's innocence. However, it must be said there is nothing like conclusive evidence of his guilt in the public domain at this time, beyond claims of officials.


I feel comfortable stipulating Lanza's guilt. The more interesting question, now unanswerable, is whether his mother ever considered committing him. Clearly, she thought that he was becoming too much for him to handle. And yet she left him alone with an arsenal! Foolishness on that level makes "nil nisi bonum" impossible to sustain.
The trouble with allowing people to be committed without being guilty of a crime is that historically people have been committed for a variety of reasons that are wholly illegitimate, from recreational drug use, to promiscuous sexuality, to not being a communist. There really isn't any way to eliminate that while still incarcerating the dangerous, other than through juries and criminal trials. Psychiatrists are fundamentally untrustworthy and always have been, and the fundaments of their profession are subjective. Disown your family by all means, but don't lock them up.
One major factor back then was the common practice of commiting people for the illness of 'homosexuality'. Being gay was considered by many psychitrists a major mental illness with absolutely hideous 'treatments'. An adult gay man, living on his own, faced the prospect of being swooped up by the police at the behest of his parents, placed in an asylum with no way of communicating with the outside world, subjected to electro torture and heavy drugs. I knew one gay guy who had had a partial lobotomy. Homosexuality is a clear example of a suppossed 'mental illness' being a myth.

The way GLBT people were treated by psychiatry is a cautionary tale. And one that does tend to support the idea that mental illness is a myth.
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