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Off His Rocker?

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A baseball player who uttered some uncouth, even bigoted, remarks about various groups of people in New York City was ordered to undergo psychological testing – and possibly treatment – by his employer, Major League Baseball (MLB). John Rocker, an awesome relief pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, has apologized for his statements in a Sports Illustrated interview, but that apparently isn’t good enough.

Let’s begin by noting that Major League Baseball is a private organization. It should be free to set its own rules and disciplinary procedures. Since it depends on attracting fans to the ballpark, it has an interest in discouraging conduct that might alienate potential ticket purchasers. Thus this affair is a private matter. If Rocker believes his contract has been violated, he can go to court and have the issue resolved. So far the government is not directly involved and it should stay out of it.

But beneath the surface there is a sense in which the government and its long-time accomplice, the mental health establishment, is already deeply involved. This unholy alliance has for years promulgated the doctrine that behavior – including verbal behavior, that is, speech – can be a sign of mental illness, or what they also call “brain disorders.” While much peaceful behavior and nearly all speech is normally off-limits to government, all bets are off when offensive conduct is characterized as “sick.” Then government and its deputized psychiatrists and mental health workers have something approaching carte blanche in dealing with offenders. No wonder Major League Baseball assumes Rocker is mentally ill because of his impolite utterances. It’s part of the culture.

The belief that disapproved conduct and speech can be a symptom of illness justifies a huge tax-funded mental health establishment that violates the rights of citizens, those “diagnosed” as sick as well as those who must foot the bill. This is no minor threat. What the government could never get away with in other contexts, it is given free rein to do when mental health is invoked. People can be confined to mental institutions or compelled to take drugs if they are diagnosed as mentally ill. The power of the state is at the disposal of those who believe conduct is a symptom of disease. In the name of mental health, people who have violated no one’s rights can be coerced, while those who have violated rights can be absolved of guilt by reason of insanity. That doesn’t mean they necessarily go free; they may instead be “hospitalized” – though the doors are locked just the same.

Observe the irony: Rocker stands accused of saying things that dehumanize the members of the groups he referred to. In response, MLB – and the mental health establishment – dehumanizes Rocker by claiming he’s out of his mind!

The threat to liberty

It is basic to libertarianism that individuals are to be free to say and do whatever they want as long as they do not violate anyone’s rights through physical force or fraud. Yet we live in an environment where the force of the state can come down on a person who has violated no one’s rights – in the name of mental health. That is dangerous and should not be overlooked by champions of liberty. As Thomas Szasz points out, the secular nature of the mental health doctrine seems to have disarmed people who otherwise would be sensitive to government incursions against peaceful individuals. People put up with things they would never tolerate if they were done in the name of religion.

We should remember that the old Soviet Union took a psychiatric approach to enemies of the state. Dissidents were routinely diagnosed as mentally ill and confined in so-called hospitals “for their own good.” The premise was that only a sick person could fail to see the obvious beneficence of the Soviet state.

Coercion against peaceful citizens should be opposed regardless of what one thinks of the idea of mental illness. No pun intended, but that should be a no-brainer. But libertarians are less than vigilant if they neglect the threat to liberty posed by the mental health ideology. It is the biggest threat facing the American people, and it will become bigger still. Why? Because nothing has such power to strip man of his humanity. Vice President Al Gore, who might be the next president, wants to mandate that health-insurance companies extend coverage for mental “disorders” equal to the coverage for physical illnesses. And all “enlightened” people believe that the government should spend more to insure the mental health of Americans. Tipper Gore is already the de facto mental health czar of the Clinton administration. If she becomes First Lady, she will be unleashed. Then watch out. (Here’s a woman who became depressed after her son nearly died, and she attributes it to disease! On hearing that she won millions of dollars in a lottery, would she attribute her elation to disease?)

Szasz’s contribution

This entire ideology and establishment rest on an absurdity: that the mind can become literally ill. Szasz, who has debunked this idea for half a century, points out that “mind” is a verb not a noun; it’s not something you have but something you do. In The Meaning of Mind (1996) he wrote, “Only in its verbal form – as in ‘never mind’ or ‘minding the baby’ – does the word ‘mind’ have an observable meaning. There is no observable entity called the ‘mind.'” No pathologist performing an autopsy has ever seen a mind. Since “the mind” is not an organ, like a stomach or liver, it cannot become diseased. As he writes, “Mental illnesses simply do not meet the established scientific criterion for disease, namely, a derangement in the structure or function of cells, tissues, and organs.” (The Freeman, November 1999).

“Mental illness,” then, is what Ayn Rand called a “stolen concept,” a concept that contradicts its own conceptual foundation. Szasz has shown that the early psychiatrists who first spoke of mental illness openly acknowledged that it was a metaphor and not a literal disease. But most people either don’t know that or have forgotten it. The metaphor has become the literal, and therein lies the danger.

The mental health establishment

The tax-financed mental health establishment (there is no other) has perhaps finally gotten Szasz’s message. But since people at the taxpayer trough seldom step away voluntarily, they are not necessarily closing up shop. Instead, they have subtly switched to talking about brain disorders. But let this not fool you. When they talk of brain disorders, they do not mean Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or epilepsy; they mean the same old bogus “mental diseases”: schizophrenia, depression, and bi-polar disorder. Note, for one thing, that no one can be treated against his will for the first set of diseases; yet “treatment” may be imposed for the second set. Moreover, if all mental illnesses are brain disorders, what’s the point of the category “mental illness”? Occam’s Razor should have dispensed with it long ago. And why are there psychiatrists? Neurologists are the brain doctors. Clearly, the switch in terminology is only legerdemain.

The mental health establishment will insist that all mental illness corresponds to some physical problem, whether genetic or chemical. But as Szasz has long pointed out, that is an assertion based on nothing. For one thing, the diagnosing of mental illness begins with observing behavior. But what behavior? Behavior that someone disapproves of! No one wondered whether a chemical imbalance explained Mother Teresa’s highly unusual behavior. Thus, diagnostic activity is political from the get-go. Socially disapproved behavior is suspect. Approved behavior is not.

In this connection, it is useful to know that Alvin Poussaint, the prominent Harvard psychiatrist, believes that racism is literally a sickness. As he wrote approvingly not long ago, “After multiple racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have racial bigotry classified as a mental disorder.” Presumably, he has a prescription for John Rocker.

Libertarians must not take these matters lightly. If liberty is a value that proceeds from the in-dividual’s rational faculty, then we must look with high suspicion on anyone who is in the business, especially with the taxpayers’ money, of identifying people who are out of their minds.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.