Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and other writings that challenged the psychiatric profession’s claims of a scientific understanding of human behavior, died Tuesday. “Szasz’s war against psychiatry,” writes Trevor Burrus, “can be viewed in the same light as Hayek’s war against planned economies: an opposition to state-backed conglomerations of power masquerading under the pretense of knowledge.”
Szasz’s unique contribution to psychiatry was to continually refocus the question on whether there is a scientific, objective basis for asserting that certain “kinds of behavior are regarded as indicative of mental illness.” His unique contribution to libertarian thought was to focus on personal responsibility as the proper response to claims of “mental illness,” to be concerned about the involuntary incarceration of the “mentally ill” as an immoral deprivation of liberty, and to criticize the state as the most significant “whom” that defines mental illness.
Because of this focus on the state’s effect on social and scientific areas, rather than in just the economic and philosophical realms, Szasz’s work encourages libertarians to look to broader social criticisms of government. Szasz wisely questioned the implications of letting the government define “mental illness” and trusting the political forces that affect those determinations. As he wrote in The Myth of Mental Illness, “Debate about what counts as mental illness has been replaced by legislation about the medicalization and demedicalization of behavior. Old diseases such as homosexuality and hysteria disappear, while new diseases such as gambling and smoking appear, as if to replace them.” [Cato-at-Liberty, September 11]