Because of this focus on the state’s effect on social and scientific areas, rather than in just the economic and philosophical realms, Szasz’s work encourages libertarians to look to broader social criticisms of government. Szasz wisely questioned the implications of letting the government define “mental illness” and trusting the political forces that affect those determinations. As he wrote in The Myth of Mental Illness, “Debate about what counts as mental illness has been replaced by legislation about the medicalization and demedicalization of behavior. Old diseases such as homosexuality and hysteria disappear, while new diseases such as gambling and smoking appear, as if to replace them.”
There is something profoundly unsettling about the state having any say in defining “normality.” The state is never a passive player in these situations. Government officials have concerns and interests of their own that can fundamentally distort the perception of mental illness and “divergent” behavior. And, perhaps most importantly, the state has vast amounts of money it can use to fund research and institutions that skew the playing field in its favor. The medicalization of Attention Deficit Disorder in American public schools is perhaps the best recent example of this phenomenon. In retrospect, the mass overdiagnosis of ADD seems the inevitable result of a recalcitrant and monolithic public school system combined with a state-backed mental health establishment obsessed with psychopharmacology.
Even as his scientific studies slowly go out of date, Szasz’s work will always underscore the fact that the state does not only control, it distorts. Sometimes it distorts so much that the world starts to look, well, kind of insane.
He will be missed.