Thomas S. Szasz (1920-2012)

With great sadness, I note the passing on September 8 of the man I have long described as the greatest living libertarian. Thomas Szasz was, among other things, a powerful influence on the movement to release people who were being held in prisons on “psychiatric” grounds, even though they had not been convicted of any crime. Virtually single-handedly, he waged a half-century war against the use of psychiatric excuses to punish innocent people or to relieve people who had committed crimes of responsibility for their actions. He exposed in countless ways the unholy alliance of the state and the psychiatric profession, and he laid bare the bogus foundation on which this alliance rests. He was one of the greatest humanitarians of the twentieth century, a man of incisive mind, unflagging determination, and tremendous energy. He died at 92, only a year after the publication of the latest of his many books. His curriculum vitae is a stunning testament of his intellectual breadth and depth and of his unyielding devotion to human freedom.

I got to know Tom in my capacity as editor of The Independent Review, and over the years I was proud to have placed several of his articles in the journal. As a friend and as a supporter of his work, I would send him little notes or news items occasionally. He was always prompt and gracious in his replies. From time to time he would send me items he thought might interest me. In this way, I got to know him better and greatly enjoyed his private, frank expressions of opinion about events and persons.

When I sent him one of my little messages on August 31, 2012, he replied quickly, as usual, thanking me, asking about my personal situation after Hurricane Isaac, and adding some unexpected personal information about himself. “Good to hear from you,” he said. “I am ok. Have stopped writing. I have had my say. Enough is enough.”  I immediately wrote back to him: “You surprise me. I thought you would continue to write as long as you continued to breathe. But if ever a writer gave an account of himself, you are the one. Your lifetime’s work is a monument that will instruct and inspire people forever.”

To my statement that I had expected him to continue writing as long as he lived, he responded: “I thought so too, but I didn’t expect to live this long (92.5). Writing was—is—very much a part of my being. I feel that I have lost a large part of myself, but so have I also parts of my body—strength, mobility, hearing, etc. But I have enough left to carry on: I live alone, drive, walk with a cane (not far or long), etc., and am blessed with two wonderful daughters, very independent (a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic and a university librarian in Va.), fine sons-in-law, and great grandson (senior at Carleton College, linguistics + premed). So no one needs me. A good feeling in old age. (But dangerous earlier.)” I was glad to know that he was still getting along fairly well, notwithstanding his limitations. Eight days later, he died.

In 2006, I was extremely honored to receive from the Center for Independent Thought one of its Thomas S. Szasz Awards for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties. On the occasion of this award, Tom made his way to Oakland, where The Independent Institute hosted a presentation program at which he and I spoke to a full house. This unforgettable occasion was the first and only time I ever had the pleasure of Tom’s company in person. As always, he was extremely gracious.

Tom was unique, and he is utterly irreplaceable. Throughout his long life, he did not simply fight the good fight; he fought a truly magnificent fight, nearly alone against the hostile ranks of his own profession and the world at large, notwithstanding the ridicule and dishonor he so often received from people more interested in pelf and self-deception than in the plain truth. Tom’s arguments were not technical or difficult to follow; many required only the precise, correct use of language. Someday, one fervently hopes, the world will look back in astonishment that such a battle ever needed to be waged, and will honor Tom’s memory as we now honor the memory of those who fought against the entrenched institution of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tom fought to free our minds from fundamental misunderstandings, warning us against the perils of submission to the superstition, deliberate deception, and fraud that prop up the therapeutic state and its countless self-interested operatives.

RIP, dear friend. It is one of my life’s greatest honors to have known you and to have called you a friend, and I shall always esteem your memory.




Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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