Thomas Szasz, Relentless Freedom Fighter, Dead at 92


By Jacob Sullum

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.

More on Szasz:

35 Heroes of Freedom

Straight Talk From Thomas Szasz (1974 interview)

Curing the Therapeutic State: Thomas Szasz on the Medicalization of American Life (2000 interview)

Thomas Szasz Takes on His Critics (book review essay)

Ill-Treated: The Continuing History of Psychiatric Abuses (book review essay)

You’d Have to Be Crazy (column)

Diagnosing in the Dark (book review essay)

Szasz in One Lesson (essay by Sheldon Richman)

Mental Health and the Law (Cato Unbound debate)

Thomas Szasz on Freedom and Psychotherapy (interview)

The Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility

The Myth of Thomas Szasz (essay in The New Atlantis)

You can find some of Szasz’s articles for Reason here. Older ones are here.

Amazon has his books here.

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2 responses to “Thomas Szasz, Relentless Freedom Fighter, Dead at 92

  1. The debate about the ideas of Dr Szasz was, and is, intense – and I simply do not know enough to have a real opinion on these matters.

    However, he was a very good writer whose intentions (the defence of freedom) were honourable.

    His death is a very sad event.

  2. Unfortunately, his shilling for Hubbard’s crew and the ridiculous CCHR will always overshadow any good that he did. That photo of him with (a smiling) placentafag that always creeps me out.