Faith in Freedom: Libertarian Principles and Psychiatric Practices

For those interested in freedom, psychiatry and Thomas Szasz, the book Faith in Freedom gives the reader insight into Szasz’ commitment to freedom and personal autonomy.

For Szasz, freedom is his religion. Szasz was an atheist, yet admits that humans by their very nature are religious beings. Pretending that one can free oneself from the human religious impulse is a myth. This book helps us to understand Szasz’ religious and philosophical commitment to freedom.

Szasz sees the history of humanity as a struggle of for freedom. The enslavement that Szasz spent most his life trying to counteract was the enslavement that comes from accepting the metaphor of mental illness.

In his own words:

Libertarians must either subscribe to the mythology of mental illness and the use of violence it justifies, or reject the psychiatric creed and repudiate the deprivations of liberty it justifies. Psychiatric slavery—like chattel slavery—is an either/or issue.

Why do so many people accept the concept of mental illness? Szasz says that the concept of mental illness is a way of absolving oneself of personal responsibility and taking away freedom from others. He says:

Unfortunately, liberty is something for which everyone regards himself as fit, but most people regard certain other persons or the members of certain groups as unfit. In the past, among the unfit were blacks, women, Jews, and “perverts” such as homosexuals. Today, the persons most often considered unfit for liberty are the mentally ill.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part outlines Szasz’s philosophical justification for freedom. In the second part of the book, Szasz gives profiles of some famous libertarians and where they went wrong in their thinking about mental illness. In effect, he psychoanalyzes famous libertarians.

I found the second part of the book as fascinating as the first. Even though Szasz has written voluminously, he rarely gives a picture of what he sees as living the good life. Through Szasz’ psychoanalyzing, I was able to get a picture of Szasz’ concept of the good life, and where some very smart thinkers went awry in their thinking about freedom and mental illness.

Particularly interesting was Szasz analysis of the economist Deirdre McCloskey’s transformation to becoming a woman. During her conversion, she was locked up in a hospital several times for fear that she was a danger to herself. As Deirdre put it:

‘When you want surgery on your nose, it’s called a nose job. When you want surgery on your boobs, it’s called a boob job. When you want surgery on your genitals…you’re crazy!’”

Szasz rightly points out, that psychiatrist should not have the right to lock someone away simply because they want to look more like a woman. We may object to such procedures on a personal level, but we should not allow a psychiatrist to become a sort-of paramilitary arm of the state under the guise of medicine. For Szasz, the same thinking goes for those who want to kill themselves, who think they are Jesus, or who gamble too much. Strange or irrational behavior does not give the state the right to deprive people of their liberty.

If you are a fan of Thomas Szasz and want a deeper understanding of his commitment to freedom, I would highly recommend this book.

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