We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

“Whoever first defines the situation is the victor”

“The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?…[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.”

The quote is from Thomas Szasz, psychiatrist and libertarian. The race to get your side’s definition in first perfectly describes the frenzy of the left wing media establishment to link the murders carried out by Jared Loughner to the right, the Tea Party, and Sarah Palin. I posted about the contrast between Guardian columnist Michael Tomasky’s haste to explain Loughner’s murders and his reluctance to explain Nidal Hassan’s murders here.

Over the last few days further evidence has emerged that Loughner was (a) simply a drug-addled madman, judging from his strange pseudo-logical screeds on YouTube and (b) had began to fix his mad rage on Gabrielle Giffords in 2007, after she gave what he regarded as an inadequate answer to his question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” At that time Palin was barely known outside Alaska.

A prescient remark from Thomas Szasz, then. Yet anyone who knows anything of his work and writings will have predicted that I am about to say that an apt quote is not his only relevance to this situation. Szasz is famous for opposing the many authoritarian crimes of the psychiatric profession: among them imprisonment without trial or appeal, assaults under the name of “treatment” (such as lobotomies, electric shocks, injections of drugs against the patient’s will), and collusion with the state to define dissent and eccentricity as mental ills. All very great dangers and he was right to oppose them, as he was right to oppose the prohibition of drugs.

And yet – there is Jared Loughner and the lengthening list of those like him. Lougher was is (Why do I keep saying was? He is alive and in custody!) a drug-addled madman who killed six people. “He should have been locked up before this” does not seem an unreasonable thing to think.

Clayton Cramer is a former libertarian. His article Mental illness and mass murder contains food for thought. This 2007 post by Brian Micklethwait is also relevant. I would welcome your opinions.

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20 comments to “Whoever first defines the situation is the victor”

  • This is one of the ways I think in which a more Libertarian (i.e. ancap) society would be less liberal. A for-profit city would not tolerate madmen and criminals on it’s streets anymore than it would tolerate — say — a brown bear.

    Any libertarian would agree that as a private actor, the for-profit city has a right to refuse to serve any potential customer for any reason, and those who had shown themselves incapable of behaving in a civilised manner amongst polite society would be refused entry to the city.

    On the other hand, this is several orders of magnitude different from forced imprisonment, as that individual is free to enter any other city that is willing to take them, or find a farmer who will lease them some land to build a shack on and a smallholding.

    One of the things a for-profit city would almost certainly do is not be ashamed about carefully licensing and restricting handgun ownership; or at least carry. Gun laws serve two important purposes, each one over-emphasized by the respective side of the political spectrum:

    1. To make sure that it is easy, quick, and cheap for a law-abiding citizen to acquire and train themselves in the use of a firearm, and to license them to carry that firearm in the street for the defence of others AND
    2. To make sure that it is difficult or expensive for criminals and the mentally unstable to acquire a firearm, and carry it in the street.

  • Lysias

    Locking up the mad before they’ve committed a crime seems to be making the very generous assumption that psychology is a predictive science. Anyone who thinks so should perhaps be asked to explain how they’ve solved the problem of other minds.

  • PeterT

    “Locking up the mad before they’ve committed a crime seems to be making the very generous assumption that psychology is a predictive science.”

    It may not be, but surely it wouldn’t be so hard to construct a basic test that people had to pass before being able to purchase a gun? While of course it would be possible to design a test that nobody could pass; if it started affecting more than a few percent of the population there would be resistance. Maybe you could even set a rule to say that the test could not be so hard that more than 5%, say, of those who took it failed. If you are a hard core anti-government type you could always lie when answering questions on what you would do if you had W Bush within gun shot a month before the invasion of Iraq (I suppose that wouldn’t work given who was vice president – but you take my point). The ability to spot the questions you needed to lie to would also be a measure of sanity.

    Laws are allowed in a libertarian society to the extent that they further negative liberty. So I don’t see any problem with some restrictions on gun ownership as long as it favours liberty. It isn’t necessarily clear cut whether a law favours negative liberty by reducing the likelihood of you being shot by a mad man more than it restricts the liberty of the mad man to own a gun. There will be a need to consider probabilities. Clearly ‘ban everybody from owning guns’ is not a reasonable solution. The majority of individuals should be able to arm themselves for self protection (including against tyrants) and sport. ‘Everbody should be allowed a gun’ is not reasonable either. Clearly there are people who are without a doubt unsuitable gun owners, such as the mentally handicapped. Making gun sellers liable for death and injury caused with their weapons (or ammunition – if this is easier to trace) may be a good solution. Say £10m for murders and £1m for accidents. It is important of course not to set the fines so high that gun makers/distributors are driven out of business by murders and accidents that they can’t prevent by selecting their buyers carefully.

    There is of course, returning to the topic of the post, a great deal of humility about your level of knowledge and wisdom required when making decisions about restrictions on other people’s liberty.

  • Poor fellow: how can a human being called “Jared” ever be taken seriously by anyone? He’d be lucky not to have gone off the rails, and felt bound to be cast out of human society, by the age of twelve.

    I blame his parents.

  • Rob

    ” “He should have been locked up before this” does not seem an unreasonable thing to think. ”

    Does it not?

    I wonder what Jefferson would have made of that…

    We all know where the “if one life can be saved…” argument leads.

    Should we imprison for pre-crime or thought crime? I would say no.

    I think living in a world with a few nutters is the price we pay for freedom.

    Life is not risk free. I think in times when a risk of violent death was more likely people were used to hearing about such deaths and understood that there was a background risk inherent in living in this world.

    3000 people a year are killed on the Roads and yet we compromise our safety for ease and speed of movement from place to place. We are de-sensitised to road death in a way that we are not to assasinations.

    This leads us to restrain freedoms to prevent very unlikely events while not acting to prevent likely events.

    Pre-crime measures like drink driving limits is just the thin end of the wedge.

  • Dale Amon

    I agree. Life is full of risks and going down the totalitarian slope to remove them won’t make you any safer unless it is in your own mind and you are as mad as Loughner. Could anyone honestly believe that even in a society with no gun ownership a Loughner would not acquire one? Or that he would build his own flame thrower and walk into a school and open up as happened in Belfast a decade ago?

  • Laird

    I agree with Rob.

    It’s easy, after the fact, to put together all the threads and conclude that the guy is a loon. And he undoubtedly is. But that doesn’t mean it’s transparently obvious that he’s a violent loon; most aren’t. With no prior history of anything other than incoherent rantings I would be very hesitant about urging peremptive incarceration (OK, call it “institutionalization” if you prefer). Who is competent to make that decision? Even more importantly, whom do you trust to make it?

    “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

  • Brad

    “He should have been locked up before this” does not seem an unreasonable thing to think.

    Locked up for what? He appears to have two previous offenses – possession of drug paraphernalia and defacing a street sign (I’ve not done major research so correction would be appreciated). I think most folk on this sight would feel he shouldn’t have been hassled at all on the first count, and might debate on the second count depending on circumstances (a mild blow against the empire sort of thing). Hardly incidents that libertarian minded people hope would turn into a long stretch in a metal and concrete cage. Every thing else he exhibited people decided to not voluntarily associate with him, which is what we expect in a free society.

    He was a guy who held some pretty strange beliefs but so do a lot of other people I know. I live in a world where solid citizens with bright minds believe that a non-corporeal entity no one has ever seen controls the universe. Sanity isn’t a numbers game. It is what he decided to do with these beliefs, or the license he gave himself to do. Many people that I have read comment here over the nine odd years I’ve frequented are angry against the State and hold ideas the middle of the curve wouldn’t agree with. I’d hope we wouldn’t be sent up to the booby hatch for our ideas. It’s simply when someone is damaged to a point where killing children and old people in the name of our beliefs makes sense that shouldn’t be tolerated.

    If owning a reference copy of Mein Kampf, Ayn Rand, the Communist Manifesto, decrying Statist education, not believing in God(s), having grave concerns over a non-commodity based currency, and prefering peace to war makes a person certifiable then I’m in big trouble. It would seem to me that somewhere along the line he got ahold of some language based nihilistic philosophy that pulled out a lynch pin on his ability to process life and how he was supposed to behave within society. The only thing I have seen that he has done that society collectively has the right to put him in a box is what he did outside that Safeway.

    It’s too bad that in some cases people’s mental illness leads to incidents such as this. For most it merely leads them to living under a bridge. But to favor institutionalization presumes a collective is paying for it, and some State funded panel is deciding who should be on the inside and who should be on the outside. This, even with this incident, is something I do not want to see. It still stands that simply disagreeing with the State Paradise of Soviet Russia was enough to get people put into a box. I’d much rather deal with the risk of an incident every decade or so that at the root is mental instability than to have the mechanism to essentially imprison someone without due process because enough people don’t like them or their ideas.

  • Brad

    Also, hopefully such actions as “Photos on the Myspace page showed a close-up picture of a handgun sitting atop a document titled “United States History.” is enough to certify people as violent and to be institutionilized (looks awkwardly at the upper left of this particular sight).

  • Tedd


    Locked up for what?

    I’m not highly knowledgeable about this case, but it’s my understanding that the suggestion that he should have been locked up was based on him having made specific death threats, numerous times. It has nothing to do with holding strange ideas or reading the wrong books.

  • I think Brad’s comment (04:32) is extremely good.

    It raises an important question of whether “the collective” has a “right” to isolate from society people who it considers insane, and possibly dangerous, and how “the collective” is to decide these things.

    The brain is a machine. Sometimes it malfunctions. What is very hard is defining a line between “dangerously[1] malfunctioning” and “eccentric”. It is not a trivial problem.

    [1] to either the person themself, or to others

  • lucklucky

    Good text about narrative construction.

    This MediaGate was a Mediatic Tet Offensive by the Left.

    A full attack trying to paralise the adversary by such a shock that even the facts aren’t allowed to have value.

  • Paul Marks

    I am ashamed to say that my first thoughts on hearing of the attack was “the left are going to try and find some way to pin this on us – they always do”.

    This shows an ignoble cast of mind (my mind) to not first think of the dead and wounded – and of their families. I did later – but such thoughts were not my first thoughts.

    So people like me fight back (that is what we do – like the cowboys in the films).

    We find the leftist parts of the insane murderer’s story – and fire them straight back at the left (the collectivists who have fireing their words at us).

    With “he is not one of us – he is one of YOU” as the subtext.

    In my defence there is a different element.

    If the left win the “defintion battle” they get closer to their objective of driving their rivals from the public square, using such terrible events as this as an excuse.

    Censorship (by whatever name) on the radio, television and on the internet. The collectivists have made it quite clear that this is their objective.

    But if people like me win the definition struggle (or at least blunt the leftist attack) we will NOT drive the left from the public square – we will not censor them.

    As for mental illness.

    Unlike some libertarians I believe it does make sense to talk about “mental illness” as a real thing.

    I also believe that drugs can damage the brain.

    Does that mean I believe in compulsory treatment?

    The first step to sanity is (supposedly) wanting to be sane (understanding that one has a problem – and wanting to deal with it) – so compulsory treatment would not seem to make any sense (even leaving aside ethical considerations).

    And if we are talking about physical brain damage (caused by drugs or other things) then what is “treatment” going to achieve?

    “Well at least it would have got this young swine off the streets and prevented him murdering people”.

    Now if someone comes out with that line it shows what they really want is not “help” or “treatment” for this person – but preventitive detention, i.e. locking someone up not for what they have done, but for what they MIGHT do.

  • Paul Marks

    “Gun laws make it easy for the sane and honest to get firearms, and difficult for the insane and dishonest to get firearms”.

    The exact opposite of the truth.

    For example, in Chicago (and all the other big American cities that had such “gun control laws”) it was easy for criminals (sane or insane) to get firearms – but, of course, if one defines “honest” as “obeys the government’s laws” honest people were disarmed and left as victims (playthings) for the criminals (sane or insane).

    Remember “licensing” (like gun registers – the trick that was used in Australia) is not an end state. It is a deception by which governments get to deprive the ordinary people of firearms – meaning that crimials (and the government itself) has a de facto monopoly.

    Actually it is astonishing to me that anyone would mention the word “licenseing” with a straight face – because it is not just in the case of firearms that is a scam, it is in just about everything else.

    As Milton Friedman pointed out for more than half a century “licsensing” is a corrupt practice by which governments enable cartels of producers to rip off their customers by offering goods or services at HIGHER PRICES (whilst saying they are “protecting the consumer”). The proportion of shoddy or fraudulent goods and services under “licensing” is not reduced either.

    Still back to “gun control”.

    It is much the same in Mexico or India where there is national “gun control” – criminals (sane or insane) have no problem getting firearms and the honest population suffer.

    “But most of the illegal firearms are American made” – an oft reported myth, but still a MYTH.

  • TDK

    I have to say the following quote in the article is extremely unlibertarian

    Our mental health system is what changed — a movement towards emptying out mental hospitals and making it difficult to commit someone against his will.

    Locking up the mentally ill for what they might do is effectively pre-crime. That’s not to say I would release all the mentally ill but we have to acknowledge that this is a difficult problem.

    I’m also minded that much of Medical Psychology appears to be questionable, from the faked evidence of Freud to the medicalisation of ordinary experiences in the modern era. To be succinct, I don’t write off all psychiatry but in general I don’t trust the profession.

  • I also liked Brad’s comment very much, but Tedd’s remark needs to be taken into account: did Loughner in fact make violent threats? It would make a world of a difference.

  • “…an important question of whether “the collective” has a “right” to isolate from society people who it considers insane, and possibly dangerous, and how “the collective” is to decide these things.”

    I’m saying no, the “collective” has no such “right”. Individuals have the right to disassociate from someone they believe is insane or dangerous – isolation, it at all, is best done by voluntary disassociation.

    I also agree with Rob’s comment.

  • In support of Paul’s comment about gun laws:

    Here in Ecuador, if you want to procure a gun in spite of there being strict laws against it, what do you do? Talk to a policeman. A large number, probably a hefty majority, of the police are corrupt enough to sell you a gun with no questions asked for the right price – it’s a nice little earner. The fact that it may later be used against one of their own never seems to occur to them – though this is unlikely, because the police seldom bother with trying to catch criminals here. Obviously, a law abiding person would not go down this route, not least because of the fear of talking to the “wrong” policeman and getting into trouble.

    So yes, this is one place where gun control laws affect only those who want to stay within the law. So called gun control is really a racket with the police as monopolistic supplier. The consequences of this situation fill a large segment of the early evening news, every evening.

    Mike: “I’m saying no, the “collective” has no such “right”.”

    Agreed. If only because the idea of a collective having any rights is philosophical nonsense. Rights are for individuals.

  • Tim Starr

    Cramer’s never been a libertarian, AFAIK. He’s always been a conservative.