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]

Curbing liberty – except when they should

The words that follow are the start of a (not all that) recent piece by Theodore Dalrymple entitled You Must Be Healthy. They certainly deserve to be noticed here, even if belatedly.

The place of liberty among political desiderata is a matter of philosophical dispute. No doubt, we must occasionally curtail liberty in pursuit of other ends; but I nevertheless find alarming the creeping authoritarianism of the medical journals, which seldom recognize liberty as an end worthy of the slightest consideration in the making of public policy.

I think the problem here is a malign mixture of politics and the medical mentality. The politics is pretty obvious. Here is a generation of politicos who are opposed to freedom, and who will miss no opportunity to establish the institutionalised habit of violating it.

The medical attitude, and the reason why doctors are so vulnerable to this anti-liberty political agenda, is that doctors typically see people at their weakest, at times when they are positively begging to be told what to do by the god-almighty doctor. Doctors are thus pre-disposed to neglect the distinction between them advising people what to do, and simply telling them, for their own good.

Dalrymple has also written recently about the closing of the asylums. This story, in contrast, is one of how the duty to take charge and to give orders was shockingly neglected. Mad people really do have to be bossed about. Madness is horribly difficult to explain or diagnose, and this is often done wrongly, even wickedly. Looking after mad people is likewise horribly difficult, and is often done horribly badly. But that is no excuse for it just not being done. Yet, in accordance with the itself mad idea that madness is all of it caused by social circumstances, a shocking proportion of mad people in Britain have just been turned loose to fend for themselves, often with minimal help.

What this all adds up to is that everyone who can do adulthood is being treated in an ever less adult manner, while insane people – who truly cannot endure the burdens of adult life – have had those very burdens thrust upon them.

The insane, but only the insane, have been liberated.

11 comments to Curbing liberty – except when they should

  • Robert Alderson

    Is this the same Thodore Dalrymple who supports breaking up families, ruining careers and putting hundreds of thousands of people in prison because they dare to smoke something he disapproves of?

  • @Robert Alderson

    That sounds interesting. Please provide links, or other references.

    Best regards

  • City Journal Spring 1997
    Don’t Legalize Drugs
    Theodore Dalrymple


  • Thomas Szasz would say that a further problem is that the state just isn’t very good at deciding when people need help and when they don’t. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that governments decide against freedom for those who could tolerate it and against needed help for those who could benefit from it, because the first decision increases their power and the second avoids a burdensome duty.

  • Paul Marks

    The old system (of locking up the mad) was discredited by the locking up of the nonmad (for example “moral defectives” under the Act of !913).

    But certainly “care in the community” in both Britian and the United States is a sick joke.

    I have guarded the remains of “St Crispin’s” (a government home for the mentally ill) in Northampton, and the people there had their own farm and many other nice things (local people still go there to use the bowling green and other facilities, what the local youths have not burned that is).

    Many of the people in such places did not want to leave, they knew they could not cope in the outside world and would be a threat to other people and to themselves.

    In a libertarian society there would still have to be places of refuge for people who can not cope – whether these places are religious foundations, secular charities or whatever.

    Otherwise you will simply have people who are O.K. not really mad at all (of course this is why people say “let them out” – fine but it becomes “kick them out”)in places where they can be looked after, falling apart on the outside.

    Nice people turning into mad dogs – who can only kill or be killed. Simply because they are put into conditions they can not cope with.

    Yes they are weak minded people – but does that mean they have to die? Certianly moral independence can only grow with the freedom to make choices (that is why the moral health of society depends on freedom), but some weak minded people may choose to go to places where they can be helped – and should they be forced to leave before the are ready? And some will never be ready and can actuallyl make useful lives for themselves on the inside (looking after the farm, the library, or whatever – whilst knowing that if things get too much for them there are people to step in at once).

    Of course in a strong community many people would not have to got to such places – their families, local churches, fraternities (in the old sense) would step in to help them when they were in trouble (just as they would help other people when they were in trouble) – but our society has been atomised. The state has consumed so much of civil society.

    Many of the refuges were given money by wealthy (or not so wealthy) people on the understanding that they would always remain open for the people who needed them.

    The buildings were constructed with resources that were often voluntarily given – and then the government closed them down (and it could because it controlled them).

    Certainly a person who is sane should not be kept in a refuge by force. But a person who fears, with good reason, that he will go mad if he is forced to leave should not be kicked out or have the place closed down.

  • It is a well known secret that a lot of what we call drug abuse is self medication for things like PTSD, ADD/ADHD, bipolar, etc.

    The drug war is a classic case of rent seeking. In other words a scam

  • Matt

    Yes, we ought to again allow an expert in mental health to declare a man insane and have him locked up, indefinitely, with no due process or appeal whatsoever, even if he has committed no crime and is no present threat to anyone. It is for their own good, and society’s as well.

    But shouldn’t we also allow the experts in criminology to do the same with criminals? After all, there are more criminals presently walking the streets than schizophrenics, and they do more damage to society. Surely there are many cases of obvious criminals who have just evaded the clumsy processes for identification that are presently used. Allowing experts in crime to declare these persons as criminals and send them directly to rehabilitation, until such time as the expert finds them ready to rejoin society, would be a great benefit to everyone including the criminals themselves.

  • I have read the article from 1997, “Don’t Legalize Drugs” by Theodore Dalrymple, kindly provided by Martin Geddes.

    It strikes me as classic Dalrymple, arguing well on a difficult issue, including a reasonably fair acknowledgement of the opposition case.

    I see nothing in it that supports Robert Alderson’s comment above. , whether or not one supports Dalrymple’s case.

    Unless Robert Alderson, or others, provide alternative justification, I shall continue to view Theorore Dalrymple’s writings, in general, as usefully informative.

    On his article on the issue of banning smoking of tobacco in certain places, he is (unlike on drug use) against the ban, as not sufficiently justified. He thus seems to be drawing a line or two in the libertarian/restrictive continuum, at places of his choice.

    Others may chose to draw the lines elsewhere. However, I ask if anyone against Dalrymple on both counts? If so, I would love to hear the composite case (unless it is just a simple disagreement with anything Dalrymple thinks).

    Best regards

  • Robert Alderson

    Theodore Dalrymple has clearly stated that he is in favour of keeping drugs like cannabis illegal. He therefore supports using the power of the state to impose his moral view on everybody else.

    The “war on drugs” costs huge sums of money, destabilizes governments of producer countries, curbs individual liberties, turns people who make bad health choices into criminals, provides a larger underground economy in which terrorists and the like can operate, breaks up families and ruins careers. It is also a war that the governments of Western nations are beyond all doubt losing.

  • Robert Alderson

    How on earth can Dalrymple write an article entitled “You must be healthy,” which decries the fact that the medical establishment ignore considerations of liberty when discussing a ban on smoking the dried leaves of the tobacco plant whilst favouring imprisonment for smokers of the dried leaves of the cannabis plant?

    I’d heard of Dalrymple before and agree that he writes well but his opinions here seem to be inconsistent.

  • Simon Cranshaw

    It is indeed astonishing that Dalrymple, who at other times writes with such intelligence and with such fair consideration of the value of liberty should have produced this piece supporting prohibition. As has been mentioned. he shows he is aware of the major valid arguments for the repeal of such prohibition. Perhaps the explanation for his stance lies in his repulsion for the decline of culture with which drugs are somehow associated in his mind and an irrational fear of the possible consequences of legalization.

    It is perhaps worth looking at where his argument goes wrong. First, he addresses the philosophical issue, which he quotes in its beautiful classic form.

    The philosophic argument is that, in a free society, adults should be permitted to do whatever they please, always provided that they are prepared to take the consequences of their own choices and that they cause no direct harm to others. The locus classicus for this point of view is John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of the community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others,” Mill wrote. “His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

    His attack is twofold. The first is an attempted reductio ad absurdum that if you allow all such liberties you would have to allow exhibitions of necrophilia. For sure, the banning of these is not something many people would regret. But at the same time I suspect that even without the ban such exhibitions would be very unlikely to take place and the sense of a need for such a ban is falsely generated here. If we prevent behaviour on the basis of it being distasteful to some members of society, there is little limit to what can be made illegal. His second argument is that our own behaviour inevitably impacts others and that by connection anything bad we do to ourselves can be considered attacks on others. This is, I suppose, ultimately true in most cases but if you allow such denial of the individual in favour of those around them, then again there’s really no end to the laws you could make. Enacted laws should have strong fundamental principles, like preventing harm to others. Dalrymple hasn’t really provided a strong one for prohibition. It is surely better to allow the distasteful than to sacrifice the fundamental basis of our laws.

    On the practical side he shows he’s aware of the devastation wreaked by prohibition but then sidesteps the issue, pointing out that of course crime is created by illegality. He simply ignores the cost benefit analysis of prohibition after this. On the subject of the failure of the drug war he makes the valid point that ultimate “failure” should not be a reason to stop if the war if something good is being acheived.

    Let us ask whether medicine is winning the war against death.

    However such a comparison makes the implicit assumption that prohibition is succeeding in significanltly reducing the harm done by drug consumption. This is the crucial point of the whole argument but little is said to explain what good prohibition has achieved. His only justification is the implication that prohibition is perhaps succeeding in holding back a massive tide of drug consumption, something which none of the evidence of previous legalizations suggests to be true. It is because in fact the very opposite of his assumption is true, because prohibition actually increases many times the damage caused by drugs, that many people propose legalization.

    It is disappointing but also interesting that someone so intelligent could write something so wrong about something so important.