Jacob Sullum

Then what exactly are they? For more than half a century, Szasz stubbornly highlighted the hazards of joining such a fuzzy, subjective concept with the force of law through involuntary treatment, the insanity defense and other psychiatrically informed policies.

Consider "sexually violent predators," who are convicted and imprisoned based on the premise that they could have restrained themselves but failed to do so, then committed to mental hospitals after completing their sentences based on the premise that they suffer from irresistible urges and therefore pose an intolerable threat to public safety. From a Szaszian perspective, this incoherent theory is a cover for what is really going on: the retroactive enhancement of duly imposed sentences by politicians who decided certain criminals were getting off too lightly -- a policy so plainly contrary to due process and the rule of law that it had to be dressed up in quasi-medical, pseudoscientific justifications.

Szasz specialized in puncturing such pretensions. He relentlessly attacked the "therapeutic state" -- the unhealthy alliance of medicine and government that blesses all sorts of unjustified limits on liberty, ranging from the mandatory prescription system to laws against suicide. My own work has been powerfully influenced by Szasz's arguments against drug prohibition, especially his discussion of its symbolism and its reliance on a mistaken understanding of addiction, and his criticism of paternalistic interventions, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recently approved soda serving ceiling, that conflate private and public health.

I will always be grateful for Szasz's courage and insight, and so should anyone who shares his passion against coercion.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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