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Libertarian Psychology

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07/01/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Libertarianism and Psychology"]

What I have for you today is a few brief notes on a prominent (or perhaps I should say "notorious") libertarian psychologist and a prominent libertarian psychiatrist — and an observation or two on what, fundamentally, is the connection between libertarianism and psychology.

The first of our two figures, Timothy Francis Leary, was born October 22, 1920, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from Springfield's once-famous Classical High School and then embarked on a five-year undergraduate career that took him to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the University of Alabama, where he graduated with a BA in psychology in 1943. He then went west, earning an MA at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, in 1946 and a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley, California, in 1950.

Leary's dissertation topic was "The Social Dimensions of Personality: Group Structure and Process." It is worth noting in passing at this point that, of course, the social dimensions of personality cut in two different directions simultaneously. On the one hand, how one interacts with others is in part a product of one's individual personality traits; on the other hand, individual personality traits can be influenced by one's interactions with others. This is a topic to which I'll return a little later.

Leary spent the '50s in the San Francisco Bay Area, first as an assistant professor at the University of California, then as director of psychological research for the Kaiser Foundation in Oakland. At the end of the decade, he went back to Massachusetts and accepted a position as a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard. While in Cambridge, he began to evolve and formulate a new theory of social interplay and personal behavior as a collection of stylized games. Under the name "transactional analysis," this theory was popularized a few years later by the psychiatrists Eric Berne and Thomas Harris in their best-selling books Games People Play and I'm OK — You're OK.

Then, on a vacation trip to Mexico in 1960, at the age of not quite 40, Leary ate some mushrooms he had obtained from a local witch doctor and had his first experience of a drug called psilocybin. He was never the same again. He devoted much of the rest of his life to proselytizing for psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, which he believed to be one of the most beneficial chemical formulas ever devised by human beings. Inevitably, this brought him into conflict with the modern prohibitionist American state, and he spent several years behind bars. "I spent four years in 29 jails and prisons on four continents," Leary told me when I interviewed him in 1976 for Reason magazine, "all this for being in a car where someone else had, without my knowledge, less than half an ounce of marijuana."

Unsurprisingly, such experiences touched off what might be called libertarian thoughts in Leary's mind. "After many years of observing the political situation," Leary told me,

and four years in prison, where you really see how the politics of a country goes because a prison is the best place to understand the general social climate, [I've] come to the conclusion that it's all gangs that control countries, states, blocs, and so forth. It's all like the Mafia. The best gang in the world, the most powerful and the most enlightened gangster group that's controlling territory, is the US government. They give you more freedom, more latitude and longitude, and [I'm] very pleased and proud to say that [I'm] going to deal with them. That doesn't mean [I] agree with them. It doesn't mean [I] follow all the ins and outs of policy. But basically, it's their turf. [I'm] glad to be on their turf, and [I'll] pay them the respect any gang leader demands.

As of the summer of 1976, Leary told me, "I'm very much a libertarian."

When this interview ran in Reason in April of 1977, it created a bit of controversy within the libertarian movement and got Leary invited to deliver the keynote speech at the 1977 national convention of the Libertarian Party, which was held in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend of that year. I was asked to introduce Leary to the assembled multitude, which I did. Leary stressed his personal commitment to libertarian ideas once again.

He seems to have still felt that way a decade later. For in 1988, he held a fundraiser in Los Angeles for LP presidential candidate Ron Paul. And in 1993, only a few years before his death, when he wrote an Introduction to a new edition of his 1968 book The Politics of Ecstasy, he listed "libertarianism" as one suggested name for what he called the "new, post-political society" that he believed "the Sixties revolution created — and continues to create" in this country. In the original edition of the book, the word "libertarian" hadn't appeared — but then, it was rather infrequently used in the America of 1968.

One year after the 1977 National LP Convention in San Francisco, where I had introduced Timothy Leary, came the 1978 National LP Convention in Boston, also held over Labor Day weekend. There I met a prominent libertarian psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz, whose works I had only recently begun to read. I think I had read The Myth of Mental Illness, Ceremonial Chemistry, The Second Sin, Heresies, Schizophrenia, Psychiatric Slavery, and The Theology of Medicine by the late summer of 1978, along with a couple dozen magazine pieces that hadn't yet been collected into books. I had also read an interview with Szasz that had appeared in Reason magazine.

I met Szasz over a luncheon table at a restaurant not far from Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel. Also seated around that table that noon were Roy Childs, Joan Kennedy Taylor, and Robert Nozick, whom I was also meeting for the first time. I no longer recall whether it was that day in Boston or over another restaurant meal a few months later in San Francisco, again with Childs and Taylor at the table, that Szasz told me about three books that had made an enormous impression on him when he was a young man and influenced the entire subsequent course of his intellectual development. The three books were Human Action by Ludwig von Mises, Philosophy in a New Key by Susanne K. Langer, and Mind, Self & Society by George Herbert Mead, who taught philosophy, sociology, and theoretical psychology at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years and is now widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of social psychology.

Philosophy in a New Key by Langer will surprise no one who remembers Szasz's observation that "bodily illness is to mental illness as literal meaning is to metaphorical meaning." And Human Action will surprise no one who has noted Szasz's firm insistence over the years on the sort of society in which every individual is held fully responsible for his or her actions. The nature of Mead's influence is less immediately obvious, perhaps especially if one recalls to mind this classic formulation of Szasz's radical commitment to methodological individualism: "There is no psychology," he famously wrote. "There is only biography and autobiography."

Szasz's own biography shows him born in Budapest on April 15, 1920, the same year as Timothy Leary. He moved to the United States when he was 18 and attended college and medical school in this country. After a few years in Chicago, he joined the faculty at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse — this was in 1956. And, essentially, he never left. He is now emeritus professor of psychiatry at what is currently called the State University of New York Health Science Center in Syracuse.

On Income Tax Day, he celebrated his 91st birthday. It is now more than half a century since his most famous — or should I say "infamous"? — book was first published. A few months after that first publication, in July 1961, Szasz received a letter from Cambridge, Massachusetts, that read:

Dear Dr. Szasz:

Your book arrived several days ago. I've spent eight hours on it and realize the task (and joy) of reading it has just begun.

The Myth of Mental Illness is the most important book in the history of psychiatry.

I know it is rash and premature to make this early judgment. I reserve the right later to revise and perhaps suggest it is the most important book published in the 20th century.

It is great in so many ways — scholarship, clinical insight, political savvy, common sense, historical sweep, human concern — and most of all for its compassionate, shattering honesty.

I have already contacted several of my colleagues and intend that everyone I meet will be exposed to your work. I am in charge of the first year graduate training at this Center and while I don't believe in "required" reading I shall certainly "suggest" with enthusiasm that this book be read and re-read.

Your text states most eloquently, convincingly, systematically what a group of us here have been attempting to communicate. I have in the past published extensively on diagnosis and have come to understand the rituals and rules of that game. In the last two years we have been attempting to apply the "game" conception to behavior change ("treatment" or "rehabilitation"). We have developed a philosophy, many rules and a new language for real education — i.e., helping people understand their games, planning new games, working out explicitly the rules, rituals, goals, roles of the games they select.

I wonder if there is any chance that you could pay us a visit. I'll be in Cambridge until July 25th — and after August 23rd. If you are in New England this month I hope we can expect a visit. I should also like to invite you to come to Harvard on a consultant-lecturer basis for a couple of days in October. A day of consulting plus a department-wide lecture. Travel expenses and a consultant fee will be available if you could arrange this trip.

I'll write again in more detail about your book but in the meantime please accept my admiration and gratitude for what you have done for your profession and your times.

Sincerely yours,

Timothy Leary

Fifteen years later, Leary was able to report to me that "I've known Thomas Szasz for many years. As a matter of fact, I invited him to come to Harvard; that's the first time he ever came there when he was at Syracuse, to give a lecture. I've been an admirer and a supporter of his ideas for about 15 years." And Szasz's relations with Leary, so far as I know, were always cordial thereafter.

It is perhaps useful at this point to recall that Leary's early theoretical work as a psychologist was focused on "the social dimensions of personality" and that his approach to psychotherapy stressed the extent to which our social behavior resembles the playing of a set of stylized games. Keep all this in mind as you consider the following passage from the works of Thomas Szasz:

We do not expect everyone to be a competent swimmer, golfer, chess player, or marksman; nor do we regard those who play games poorly as "sick." The activities that comprise being a student, parent, worker, etc. are, in many ways, similar to the activities that comprise being a golfer or chess player. Yet we act as if we expected everyone to play at his own life games competently; and we regard those who play poorly — at being husband or wife, mother or father — as "sick," that is, "mentally ill."

Szasz and Leary often chose somewhat different public issues to speak out on. Szasz concerned himself with the involuntary imprisonment of nonviolent "patients" in "mental hospitals." Leary concerned himself with the potential of psychedelic drugs in therapy and in education. But both men vigorously opposed the "War on Drugs." And both made memorable contributions to the libertarian tradition.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.