I am sorry to report that Thomas Szasz, the great libertarian critic of coercive psychiatry, the "therapeutic state," and the war on drugs, died over the weekend at his home in Manlius, New York. He was 92.
Szasz, a Reason contributing editor and professor emeritus at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, was driven throughout his long and remarkably productive career by what he called his "passion against coercion," especially the medicalized versions that recast repression as treatment. His radical critique of psychiatry, laid out in the 1960 American Psychologist essay "The Myth of Mental Illness" and then in a book of the same name the following year, may be more relevant today than ever, as the field grows to encompass every sin and foible despite its shaky empirical foundation. Szasz argued tirelessly that psychiatric labels, as nothing more than names attached to sets of behavioral criteria, should not be used to strip people of their freedom or relieve them of their responsibility. Defenders of mental-health orthodoxy dismiss this critique more often than they address it, but even when they engage Szasz's arguments they cannot refute his crucial point about the arbitrariness and subjectivity of psychiatric taxonomy.
In addition to opposing involuntary psychiatric treatment and the insanity defense, Szasz objected to medically sanctioned state interference in what ought to be private decisions, ranging from drug use to suicide. His critique of drug prohibition, which delved into frequently ignored issues such as the nature of addiction and the justification for the mandatory prescription system, went beyond cost-benefit analysis to reveal the essential immorality of using force to stop people from altering their consciousness with politically disfavored chemicals. He brought the same kind of penetrating analysis to the subject of "public health" paternalism, interventions aimed at minimizing morbidity and mortality by discouraging risky behavior. He was a powerful influence on my own work in both of these areas, and I will always be grateful for his courage and insight.