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Remarks by Sheldon Richman on the occasion of Tom Szasz's 85th birthday
dinner hosted by REASON Foundation/Magazine, April 15, 2005
I Ricchi Restaurant, Washington, DC

Szasz Dinner
Washington, D.C.
April 15, 2005

Happy Birthday, Tom. We're all sorry you couldn't make the trip to be with us tonight.

It is indeed an honor and a pleasure to be part of this tribute, because I can think of no one who has contributed more to the cause of liberty than Thomas Szasz. And he's still at it, thank goodness. Too many people, including far too many libertarians, believe that Tom's work is confined to the esoteric subject of psychiatry, with little if any application to wider concerns. This is a huge mistake. Tom's work is as broad and as deep as can be; it touches on the most fundamental human concerns, including autonomy, self-definition, and the conflict between man and man, and man and state. His subject is far broader and deeper than economics, which preoccupies so many champions of freedom. Indeed, Tom's area of study is what makes economics a discipline that is actually relevant to human beings. Without it, economics is sterile. He, like other thinkers we admire, reminds us that economic actors are persons, with all that implies. I would say that to truly appreciate Mises and Hayek and the richness of the Austrian school of economics, you have to appreciate Thomas Szasz. Mises said, "Man acts." Szasz says, "And how!" and then proceeds to extend that axiom to areas where few have had the courage to tread. When Szasz writes, as he did in Szasz Under Fire, that the myth of mental illness is a premise, not a conclusion, he was writing in the Misesian tradition. It a corollary to saying that "man acts" is a premise, not a conclusion.

I mentioned courage, but I won't dwell on it except to ask you to imagine what it must have been like for a young psychiatrist in the 1950s to take on the entire entrenched psychiatric establishment at its most basic level, beginning with the audacious and Szaszian title "The Myth of Mental Illness."

The first time I read something by Tom was when I was in college, probably in 1968. His essay "Involuntary Mental Hospitalization: A Crime Against Humanity" was included in an anthology and was assigned by the professor. I don't even remember the course, it could have been any number of them, which tells you something right there. I remember the essay well. I was already a libertarian, and I recall how impressed I was by the force of the argument. I had never seen libertarian principles applied to this subject before. It was indeed a mind-altering experience. And it was legal!

I am an editor, so maybe that is why I am always so impressed with Tom's attention to language. Once he gets you thinking about the metaphor and the strategic, prescriptive use of language, you never are the same. In his book Insanity: The Idea and Its Consequences, he tells of the time he was explaining the metaphorical use of the word illness to a group of medical students.

"One day, before beginning my explanation, I asked if anyone in the group . . . could define metaphor. Half of them raised their hands. I turned to one and asked him to tell us. He said he knew what a metaphor is but could not define it. I suggested he give us an example. He thought for a moment and then said: 'My mind is a blank.' And not a single student laughed. It was then I realized that they did not know what a metaphor is; and perhaps why so many people do not, or cannot, distinguish literal diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, from metaphorical diseases, such as lovesickness and mental illness."

Tom reminds us that language is prescriptive, not only descriptive. In an aphorism he states: "We only eat those things which we consider 'good' and must therefore give them good names. When people call insects 'insects' and rats 'rats,' they don't eat them. When they do eat them, as the Chinese did, they call grasshoppers 'bushwood shrimp,' and rats 'household deer.'"

By the same process, we call some acts of confinement "imprisonment" and others "mental hospitalization," or "civil commitment." It's not the basic facts that differ-a person is locked up against his will in either case-it's the objectives.

There is a quotation from Gilbert Ryle that I know Tom likes. In Ryle's book The Concept of Mind, he wrote: "A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them."

What is insufficiently understood is that Tom has never denied the facts to which most people attach the idioms of psychiatry-the bothersome, bizarre, and abominable behavior we see or read about every day. All-all!-he has done is detach the inappropriate medical idioms-the materialist references to neuroses, psychoses, chemical imbalances, and neurotransmitters-and replace them with the terms we libertarians, particularly we Austro-libertarians, should appreciate: praxeological terms, such as will, intend, prefer, value, strategy, ends, and means. As he says, actions don't have causes; they have reasons.

I can't help coming back to this connection between Szasz and Austrian economics. Mises said there are no laws of history; that would be a denial of free will, the existence of which we know axiomatically. Szasz says there is no psychology, only biography and autobiography. They are saying the same thing.

This is why I was fascinated by the section in Tom's latest book, Faith in Freedom, in which he shows the parallel between psychiatry and mainstream, scientistic economics. As he wrote there, "Imitating real scientists, economists and psychiatrists use (pseudo)scientific language, but cannot dispense with the use of ordinary language as well. The scientific-scientistic language of economics is mathematics, of psychiatry, neuroscience. That is for show. The real action lies in law and politics: economists and psychiatrists solicit politicians to enact the kinds of economic and psychiatric policies they favor. . . . [T]he functions of both economics and psychiatry are, properly speaking, theological and political. Both deal with beliefs and values; both offer explanations of how people live and recommendations of how they ought to live; and both use force and justify its use by professional rhetoric."

Thus people accept impositions by economic and medical authorities that they would never accept by religious authorities. If you want to coerce people, convert your moral idiom into a scientific idiom. You'll be unimpeded-unfortunately, even by some libertarians.

Gilbert Ryle wrote, "Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men-a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering." Thomas Szasz has done nothing less than mount-always with logic, passion, benevolence, and humor-a heroic opposition to the abolition of man. What could merit greater admiration? Good health, Tom. See you at the next celebration.

-- Sheldon


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