Was Thomas Szasz a Conservative?


In an interesting but puzzling Aeon essay, Cornell historian Holly Case notes the resemblance between contemporary doubts about the scientific foundation of psychiatry and the critique first laid out by Thomas Szasz half a century ago. "It might be that the world has only recently come around to his way of thinking," Case suggests. Yet she misconstrues an important aspect of Szasz's thinking by portraying him as "a staunch Republican" and a "conservative," apparently unaware of his self-proclaimed libertarianism. Szasz, who died last year at the age of 92, was a Reason contributing editor for decades. He described the main motivation for his intellectual career as "my passion against coercion," which he opposed (outside of situations involving the defense of rights) no matter who was advocating it, left, right, or center. Hence he opposed forced psychiatric treatment, but he also opposed interference in consensual transactions between psychiatrists and voluntary patients. Here he parted company with some left-wing critics of psychiatry. As he explained in a 2000 interview with Reason:

[R.D.] Laing in particular was completely inattentive to the legal aspects, so he never really distinguished between involuntary and voluntary psychiatry. Here my classical liberal convictions are crucial, in that I firmly believe that there should be no interference in voluntary relationships between psychiatrists and patients. If the patient wants a drug, fine. If the patient wants electric shock, fine. If the patient wants a lobotomy, fine. Now that doesn't mean that I like it, any more than I would if the patient wants to have an abortion just because it's inconvenient to have a baby. I don't think that's a good idea either. But I don't think the law should interfere with it.

Where a classical liberal would see consistent application of a nonaggression principle, Case sees a kind of pigheaded perversity:

Being contrarian was [Szasz's] way of being right. Throughout his career, even friendly co-optation irked him. When scholars started associating him with the anti-psychiatry movement, he wrote a book entitled Antipsychiatry: Quackery Squared (2009).

But Case focuses mainly on common ground between what she views as right-wing and left-wing critics of psychiatry. Beginning in the 1960s, she writes, "Right and left sought to eliminate insanity in order to lionise dissent, legitimise the marginal and condemn the new normal. Few other issues show a convergence of right and left so far-reaching, while still allowing both sides to adhere to their politics and maintain a sense of total opposition." At the same time, she says "Szasz was conspicuously alone in mounting the barricades from the right," so she really needs him to be a right-winger. Bending the facts to fit her thesis, she ascribes to Szasz a "distinctively conservative perspective." That label does not jibe with his opposition to drug prohibition and his forthright defense of the right to suicide, two major themes of his career that Case tellingly ignores. Szasz's position on physician-assisted suicide combined both of these themes and demonstrated that his perspective was in fact distinctively libertarian. He opposed Oregon's Death With Dignity Act (later imitated by Washington) because it medicalized a moral decision and required people to meet government-dictated criteria before they could legally end their lives. If the drug laws did not make it difficult for people to obtain substances useful for suicide (such as barbiturates), he said, there would be no need for physician-assisted suicide.

Case fitfully recognizes that conservatism is not an adequate description of Szasz's political philosophy. "In seeking to discredit the insanity defence in order to preserve morality," she writes, "perhaps Szasz and [Hannah] Arendt both came unmoored from the traditional political spectrum altogether." She notes that Szasz criticized attempts to pathologize the ideologies of Barry Goldwater and Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, who in 1962 was charged with incitement for urging resistance to desgregation in Mississippi. Yet "when Szasz chronicled the history of ideological quarantine, his own earliest examples tended to feature conservative henchmen." Even in his criticism of those who portrayed Walker's racism and communist conspiracy theories as symptoms of mental illness, Szasz does not sound like a conservative. "Before the Civil War," he wrote in 2009, "proslavery physicians in the South diagnosed black slaves who tried to escape to the North as mentally ill, 'suffering from drapetomania.' In the Walker case, pro-integration psychiatrists in the North diagnosed white segregationists as mentally ill, 'suffering from racism.'"

Szasz's consistent condemnation of the tendency to portray political opponents as mentally ill is of a piece with his consistent condemnation of unjustified coercion. As Case herself puts it, Szasz believed "right and left needn't bear any relation to right and wrong." In that gloss there is the seed of a more perceptive essay on the relationship between Szasz's political views and his critique of psychiatry.

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  1. Yet she misconstrues an important aspect of Szasz’s thinking by portraying him as “a staunch Republican” and a “conservative,” apparently unaware of his self-proclaimed libertarianism.

    I get this all the time, although they usually try to frame me as “conservative” or “liberal,” whichever is the opposite of the framer.

  2. I don’t know Cornell historian Holly Case, but if she is a progressive then this makes perfect sense. To the left, a libertarian is a conservative just as much as a conservative is a conservative. Anyone with other views is a dirty conservative.

    If she’s not, then maybe she was just a writer who needed facts to fit a narrative.

    1. Szasz believed “right and left needn’t bear any relation to right and wrong.”

      I can see why this might drive a devoted leftist nuts, and in their pathological obsession to signal moral rectitude over the opposition they’re quite like conservatives who argue that the left is driven by moral relativism. It’s a tired argument, but just once I’d like to see an avowed TEAM author bifurcate the political divide not along the arbitrary political castes but along affinity to infringements on personal rights and responsibilities, a more interesting indicator of moral awareness.

  3. Classical liberals and individualists are “on the right” in the modern American ideological linear continuum.

    1. Yes, but leftists see those as clustered in permanent orbit at the rightward tail of the Republican party, rather than a distinct evolution of conservative thought. Or maybe I mean devolution, once you scrape off all of the so-con and warboner yich. Either way, it’s more separate from Republican philosophy than Republican is from Democratic.

      1. The leftist eye sees nothing but various shades of socialism. Their entire universe begins at the Maoist Left and ends at the Mussolini Right. It is inconceivable to them a world that can exist without government passing out the goods and services, either through rationing or through license.

    2. Classical liberals and individualists are really orthogonal to the modern American ideological linear continuum.

    3. Interestingly Cody Wilson also calls himself a “leftist” in the classical sense and admits leaning culturally left. A anti-neo-liberal, anti-progressive leftist, but leftist nonetheless. Probably says that to deliberately confuse people, but still not technically wrong, in the same way Bastiat is a leftist.

  4. It is amusing to read through the comments at the linked article and note how some people strive to de-link libertarianism and conservatism (e.g. ‘free market’ vs. ‘corporatist.’)

    I am certain this distinction matters greatly to (at least) some libertarians, and likewise suspect that many conservatives resent being associated with corporatism/statism.

    But what is most disturbing is the utter lack of awareness by those making the attempts that the left, or people prone to supporting such a positions, simply do not care about those arguments. To them such reasoning being nothing more than a distinction without a difference.

    Cook being a prime example – libertarian,conservative, republican, it does not matter – they are all ‘on the right.’

    So, while I do not know whether Cook has self-identified as a progressive, it is clear from her deeds that she accepts a particular form of sociopolitical alignment, and further, has placed herself upon that spectrum.

    1. Or she is just ignorant.

    2. Cook being a prime example – libertarian,conservative, republican, it does not matter – they are all ‘on the right.’

      As they are stuck in the one dimensional political perspective, anyone “not of the left”, MUST be of the right.

  5. OK man, you gotta rol lthat beautiful bean footage!

  6. Maybe Case just thought it was too difficult and/or time-consuming to tease out the difference between conservatism and classical liberalism?

    This might go along with the Progressive belief that those who believe in the possibility and desirability of a large, technocratic, and benign state are “moderns” while those who maintain the skepticism of both such a state’s feasibility and desirability are cynical, dogmatic, and committed to a primitive and nostalgia-ridden worldview.

  7. Nice to see you and Miss Case have something in common.

    1. You talkin’ to me?

  8. That article in Aeon has got to be one of the most wretched pieces of writing I have ever seen outside of high school.

    It really seemed like she wrote most of it before she knew anything at all about Szasz (except that he was ‘on the right’), and then filled in the blanks with factoids from a Wikipedia article.

    How do people get paid for crap writing like this?

    1. I think you answered your own question.

  9. A big problem here is that broad words like “conservative” invite equivocation. I’m sure a dictionary would have many meanings for it, all of them correct, some overlapping. Tom was conservative in the sense of skeptical.

    But it could be worse. At least “conservative” isn’t a Janus word, like “sanction”; a word whose constructed antonym is a synonym, like “ravel” and “unravel”; or a word that has no opposite, like “criminal” (at least in the world of Illuminati).

  10. A big problem here is that broad words like “conservative” invite equivocation. I’m sure a dictionary would have many meanings for it, all of them correct, some overlapping. Tom was conservative in the sense of skeptical.

    But it could be worse. At least “conservative” isn’t a Janus word, like “sanction”; a word whose constructed antonym is a synonym, like “ravel” and “unravel”; or a word that has no opposite, like “criminal” (at least in the world of Illuminati).

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