We’re Here To Save You From Yourself

Imagine that you are a homeless person in Boston. You’re sitting in the hallway of a homelessness service provider, waiting to speak to a staff person. This staff person told you that he’s going to talk to his boss and get you some help, and that you just need to wait a bit longer. More time goes by. You decided to take a nap, since you’ve only gotten a few hours of sleep last night on the streets. When you wake up, there are EMS personnel and a police officer standing around you. They tell you that you just need to come with them and get checked out at a hospital. You try to tell them that you’re fine and that you don’t want to go with them, but they tell you that you have choice. You leave the office strapped to a stretcher; if you resist you may be charged with assault. While you were sitting the hallway, a supervisor of the staff member you came to see decided that you were a danger to yourself or others, and he called the police to have you “Sectioned”. This is a reality of life for many people in our country, homeless or not; this is involuntary commitment.

What is Involuntary Commitment?

Every state (and DC) in America has laws that regulate and permit involuntary commitment. In the state of this writer, Massachusetts, the laws are:

MASS. GEN. LAWS ANN. ch. 123, § 8(a). After a hearing, unless such hearing is waived in writing, the district court or the division of the juvenile court department shall not order the commitment of a person at a facility or shall not renew such order unless it finds after a hearing that

(1) such person is mentally ill, and

(2) the discharge of such person from a facility would create a likelihood of serious harm.

MASS. GEN. LAWS ANN. ch. 123, § 1. “Likelihood of serious harm”,

(1) a substantial risk of physical harm to the person himself as manifested by evidence of, threats of, or attempts at, suicide or serious bodily harm;

(2) a substantial risk of physical harm to other persons as manifested by evidence of homicidal or other violent behavior or evidence that others are placed in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious physical harm to them; or

(3) a very substantial risk of physical impairment or injury to the person himself as manifested by evidence that such person’s judgment is so affected that he is unable to protect himself in the community and that reasonable provision for his protection is not available in the community.

In short, a person may have their rights infringed upon if someone believes them to be a danger to themselves or others. We may note that there is no argument or proof given as to how or why the state may do this, but rather it is merely assumed that the state does have the authority to do this a priori. Furthermore, it is assumed that even if there is no explicit argument for involuntary commitment, we can be sure that it is done justly and that one’s rights are entirely open to interpretation by the state. These assumptions will be the targets of this writing. But first we need to briefly discuss rights to properly frame the discussion.

Rights and Their Origins

A right is an exclusive claim to something. That something could be a piece of property or it could be an intangible, such as your thoughts or the quality of your very freedom; you have a claim to your life and your liberty, for instance.

Perhaps the most logically consistent position of rights is that of Hans Hermann-Hoppe, who claims that all rights are logical deductions from the sole right of property. Hoppe argues, rather convincingly, that all rights come from self-ownership; if you own your body, then you have exclusive ownership of those things which emanate from your self. This includes your speech, thoughts, and other pieces of property owned. And as Hoppe correctly asserts, one cannot attempt to disprove self-ownership without demonstrating ownership of his own body through the act itself. In general, Hoppe’s reasoning is in line with theorists who are generally labeled as natural rights theorists, in that the rights of a man are inherently related to his very nature. I do not have the space here to do a primer on natural law and natural rights, so interested persons will have to investigate the matter further on their own.

In contrast, there are those who would say that man has no rights outside the existence of the state and that rights are determined wholly by the state. We can see examples of such thinking in figures like Hobbes, Robespierre, and every dictator and despot in modern times. We can, for the sake of ease, we may label this position as the theory of “political rights” or “fiat rights”.  Further elucidation is required in regards to the origins of rights in both camps, if we are to understand the scope of involuntary commitment.

Origins and Understanding of Rights

We have divided rights theorists into two camps: natural and political. At the risk of being repetitive, I will hammer home the differences between the two. The former hold to the idea that rights are indivisible part of man, that by being a human being one naturally holds claim to rights. This quality of man, that man has inalienable rights, either comes from God or from possessing the nature of a human being; regardless of the origin, the quality of rights is beyond the state. The latter hold to the idea that rights exist as a product of the state, that without the state there are no rights. In this point of view, rights are granted or taken away by the political class depending upon certain factors, like age or sex, and that rights do not exist in places where states don’t recognize those rights.

Immediately it is obvious that these two perspectives are mutually exclusive. Proponents of natural rights view rights as existing prior to the state, with constitutions and laws merely recognizing those rights. Proponents of political rights view rights as originating within the state, with people being inherently rightless without the condition of statehood. Notable natural rights theorists include Murray Rothbard and Frédéric Bastiat (not to mention many of the Founding Fathers), who have come to influence many of those who describe themselves as lovers of liberty (other lovers of liberty, like Benjamin Tucker, take the view that rights are contractual entitlements that arise from exchange – this is a position that falls outside the general two camps here, so unfortunately we have to shelve it for another time). On the side of political rights, one can hardly chuck a stick without hitting a proponent of this theory and therefore notable examples are not worthy of singling out more so than they already have been; interested persons may defer to the UN if they want to see one example of the theory’s implementation, which has its own Universal Declaration of Human Rights based on political rights theory.

How can these differing views inform our understandings of rights? I believe the most obvious manner is by informing us as to whether or not rights are absolute or not. The natural rights proponent would generally claim that rights are absolute, that rights are beyond the control of the state and that any violation of humans rights is a violation of natural law itself, which warrants some restitution or punishment for the transgression. The political rights proponent would generally claim that rights are subject to final interpretation by members of the political class, and that violations of rights are permissible depending upon the context of the situation. From these two basic, general understandings, whole sets of challenges and ideas emerge. In our own modern, state-controlled times, we find ourselves dealing with the challenges and implications of a system of rights dictated by regulations. Therefore I will now focus on those challenges and implications, from the side of natural rights, which writer holds to as being the proper understanding of rights.

The Problem of Political Rights

The central problem of political rights, as touched upon before, is that a right granted to an individual by the state amounts to little more than a legal privilege. In the natural rights tradition, in general, rights are absolute qualities that are inherently part and parcel of personhood. They are not granted by the ballot box or the pen of the legislator; those things are mere recognitions of pre-existing rights. This is not so with the legal privileges of political rights. If rights are negotiable, arbitrary creations of the political class, then they cannot be absolute by nature. All other problems stem from this principle one, that ultimately rights are to be decided by rulers (even if the rights reach the desk of the ruler via voters) rather than any absolute nature of mankind.

How does this problem play out in real life? Let’s derive some examples from the principal problem. If your nation is at war, then the rights of your citizens are meaningless; they may be placed in camps due to “security” or sent to war via the draft. If your nation needs more policing, then the police may run roughshod over the populace at will; persons may be searched ad hoc, detained indefinitely, and gunned down in the streets without cause. If your nation is being corrupted by an unwanted group, then march them off into the wilderness; kill them in rice fields, force them to become farmers, and create social justice as you see fit! Have a problem with the mentally ill? Why, just shock and lobotomize them into submission!

These matters are neither conjecture nor examples of a slippery slope. Indeed, they are examples of atrocities committed in the 20th century alone. They are real life instances of rights being trampled upon in the guise of security, helping others, social contract, social justice, and other meaningless platitudes. And yet, can such things be called atrocities if rights are not absolute? Hardly! If rights are issued by the legislator, then they may be revoked equally quickly! Rights are mere privileges, like driver’s licenses, to be issued and snatched away at the discretion of the political class.

Can we see more specific examples of this at work? A simple Google search yields just such an opportunity.

Specific Examples Addressed

From the Huffington Post:

When my friend Kurt, who was 26, died in April after colliding with another car, he left a cloud of confusion in his wake. Kurt had struggled with schizoaffective disorder, a subtype of schizophrenia, since he was a teenager and many of us wondered whether Kurt’s tragic death was a suicide…While we may never know whether Kurt decided to end his life or was merely driving recklessly, his history of medication noncompliance certainly makes a case for making involuntary treatment more widespread and easier to order. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Jeneen Interlandi discusses the debate over involuntary treatment by highlighting her father’s struggles with bipolar disorder. She wishes that someone could have forced him to seek treatment to expedite his recovery…Aside from the right of the state to protect others from danger, there is a legal justification called the principle of parens patriae, which is the right of the state to act as the parent of a disabled person. It is this right that would have been most appropriate in helping Kurt get treatment for most of his life, as he was never a danger to others except in his last day on Earth.

Here is a perfect example of rights being made into legal privileges in the name of “treatment”. For the sake of getting someone into medical care that they would otherwise not want, we must take the paternal attitude of forcing people into treatment against their will. Such a matter would be a violation of human rights according to natural rights theory but it is no problem for those who view the state as the creator of rights. Indeed, violating rights becomes standard protocol amongst statists who hold to the idea of political rights. Those who would disagree should go ask the Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps how they feel about imprisonment “for the greater good”.

From Psychology Today:

Susan Brooke (name falsified) was 45 when I saw her for evaluation. She was an accomplished professional who had the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But her condition was unstable and treatment was not containing her mood swings, which impaired her ability to work and were highly disruptive at home and to her marriage. Her husband attended the evaluation and offered to be helpful in any ways he could. I arranged to see her again in a week but a few days later I received a call from her husband and sister saying she had become very ill: she had destroyed property in her home and was menacing to her family. I wrote out the necessary paperwork and by phone arranged for the town police in a semirural area outside a large city to meet me at her home, where family members would be waiting.

I arrived about 9:00 at night. Her husband and sister were there, as were the police. We huddled in the lights of parked cars. I knocked at the door to enter but the patient was screaming and threatening to me. I called for an ambulance and arranged for her admission to a private psychiatric hospital in the area. When the police went to the door she quieted considerably and went peaceably, but in restraints, with the ambulance personnel to the hospital where she was involuntarily admitted. A few days later her husband called me to thank me for my intervention and to say that his wife was doing better. He added that she never wanted to see me again.

Different scenario, same basic premise: the mentally ill do not have rights if the state says it is so. Indeed, one must wonder if the mentally ill are a class apart from the rest of us; a group of people that can be restrained ad hoc and without accountability (more on this later). Something of note is that here we see how members of the intelligentsia can use the power of the state to violate rights at will. How many of us can get people restrained and taken away just because we’re “recognized” by the state to have such power? Are we not to be suspicious of such people, who claim to help us through hurting us?

From KHN Morning Briefing:

Advocates for reform state that the civil rights argument against involuntary commitment fails to recognize the state of mental health care today. It is estimated that more than one-third of the nation’s homeless population is mentally ill, and a 1999 Department of Justice study found that 16% of U.S. prison inmates have a mental illness. And USA Today reports that there are now “more mentally ill people in U.S. prisons and jails than there are in mental hospitals.” California Assembly Member Helen Thomson (D), who last year led a failed state effort to “establish a forced-treatment outpatient program,” said, “Nobody is advocating that we reopen the state hospitals, the way it was in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. [But] we have gone from hospital-based care to prison-based care. The opponents who say, ‘Don’t take my rights away’ refuse to look at what really has happened. The people in the state prison system don’t have any rights. They are locked up.” Many homeless mentally ill individuals resort to drugs and alcohol in the absence of medication, only to be arrested and go through the revolving door of the nation’s “chronically underfunded mental health system,” USA Today reports. Some mentally ill people suffer from a “lack of insight” in which their brain does not recognize that they are sick, precluding them from seeking treatment, while others “simply refuse treatment.” USA Today reports that state laws prohibiting involuntary treatment have left families with the burden of caring for mentally ill family members, “leav[ing] them exhausted and at odds with doctors, judges and the police.”

This is getting repetitive, I know, but it is important to see how widespread and systematic this thinking is. This piece has two notable ideas in it. The first is that if we don’t force people to take medication and coerce them for their own good, then they may go to jail! I wonder, do we treat other ill people this way? Do we lock up cancer patients and people with diabetes? Do we force feed the obese various medications for their own good? If not, why not? If we can harm people in the name of social support and the greater good, why not extend the logic to other illnesses? Perhaps it is because we do not want the “treatment” that we are willing to force on others. The second part worthy of mentioning is in the end, which is that people feel burdened by taking care of their mentally ill family members. This is interesting, in that it suggests that people would rather have their family members treated like prisoners than take care of them themselves. Evidentially, it is preferable to use state violence on your family than it is to extend compassion to them; I wonder if this is an example of what Bastiat meant when he said that government is the myth of everyone living at the expense of everyone else…

Further Implications and Considerations

Before ending this piece of writing, I’d like to address one more implication and two other considerations. They are important derivations of the topics previously discussed, though they don’t quite fit in to previous sections. The implication is in regards to the inconsistency of those who support legal privileges over natural rights. The considerations are that of accountability and legitimacy.

Implication I

There is an important implication to legal privileges: if we logically apply this theory to everything we call “rights” in our society, it is probable that supporters of legal privileges would not support their position. Let’s return to the principle underneath all of this, the principle that all rights come from the state either by fiat or by the ballot box. So what happens when we apply it to “rights” commonly discussed today? What if medical care as a right was arbitrarily dictated by the state? It would mean that medical care and all that it entails would be at the discretion of the state. Would people support that, if they awoke to find out that their MassHealth coverage vanished at the whim of a legislator? On the flip-side, would they support it if their private insurance was suddenly replaced by centralized, subsidized healthcare like in Europe? How would they feel if their “healthcare rights” were solely in the hands of the ruling elite? What if we apply that to abortion? If a woman believed that rights come from the state, then she wouldn’t mind if the state decided whether or not a woman had the right to choose to bear a child or not. What if we apply that to miscegenation laws of the past? If a man believed that rights come from the state, then he’d accept whatever decision the state made on his behalf regarding whether or not he can love those outside of his own race. Once more I must repeat myself: these are not slippery slope examples, these are examples from history that arise when human rights are not held as absolute.

Consideration I

One consideration that must be discussed is that of accountability. This is no mere theoretical concern either….

From NBC:

Virginia police officials have agreed to settle a lawsuit over the wrongful arrest, strip search and detention of a disabled man based on his slurred speech and unsteady gait.

The Fourth Amendment lawsuit was filed by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute on behalf of 37-year-old Gordon Goines, a resident of Waynesboro, Va., who suffers from a neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis.

Goines was seized by Waynesboro, Va., police officers, strip searched, handcuffed to a table, diagnosed as having “mental health issues,” and subsequently locked up for five days in a mental health facility against his will and with no access to family and friends.

The settlement follows a May 2016 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reinstating the lawsuit after a lower court dismissal. In allowing the case to move forward, the Appeals court noted that the case “tells the story of police who assumed from Goines’ physical difficulties that he was mentally ill and never actually listened to what Goines was telling them.”

From the Huffington Post:

Kamilah Brock says the New York City police sent her to a mental hospital for a hellish eight days, where she was forcefully injected with powerful drugs, essentially because they couldn’t believe a black woman owned a BMW.

In her first on-camera interview about her ordeal, which aired Thursday, the 32-year-old told PIX11 that it was all a “nightmare.”

It’s a nightmare, Brock’s lawyer told The Huffington Post, that never would have happened if she weren’t African-American.

From the Citizens Commission on Human Rights:

An Oil City man has been awarded more than $1.1 million in damages in a civil suit against Northwest Medical Center in which the man claimed he was falsely imprisoned for more than seven days in 1993.

Sources said the damages, which were determined by a jury on Monday, are some of the biggest ever awarded in Venango County. The verdict was reached following a civil jury trial last week in Venango County Court.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 1996, claimed Roy E. Lund was committed against his will at the hospital Nov. 23, 1993, for emergency mental examination and treatment.

A civil complaint filed at the Venango County Courthouse states that the Oil City Police Department arrived at Lund’s home after receiving a call from Lund’s wife alleging that he threatened her life.

Officers put Lund in handcuffs and took him to Northwest Medical Center in Oil City, where he was involuntarily committed for emergency medical examination and treatment, the papers indicate.

According to the lawsuit, “the allegations which were the basis for Lund’s involuntary commitment were false.”

Here are three isolated cases of the same problem. Who is accountable for “accidental” involuntary commitment? When an individual receives a settlement from the police who aided their imprisonment, it is uncommon that the police officers themselves pay personally; it is more common that the tax payers foot the bill. And what of those individuals who receive no restitution at all? Would we be so apathetic to their oppression at the hands of the police and psychiatrists if such things happened to our loved ones? Will we, the tax payers, ever be sick and tired of being forced to be financially accountable for the mistakes and oppressive acts of those who make up the political class and\or the intelligentsia (who are the court intellectuals for the political elites)?

Consideration II

Another consideration we must ponder is that of the legitimacy of the state in regards to involuntary commitment. Where does the state get this ability? Nowhere in laws regarding involuntary commitment do we see evidence that they legitimately have the authority to do so. Their court intellectuals who defend the state make arguments purely on utilitarian grounds. They speak in terms of “should” rather than “is”, as they must, for they have no objective truth to back up their positions. Their only remedy is to make arguments based on what they’d like to exist rather than what actually exists. This would be a minimal evil, except that it is used to justify imprisoning people and force-feeding them medications with long-term side-effects.

Now, let’s consider this philosophically. Supposedly we live in a society where the state exists for and by the people. If the power of the state comes from the power of each individual human being who live under it, we must ask ourselves, who has the right to imprison other people absent the state? If the average Joe Citizen attempted to do this, we’d call him a kidnapper. But through the smoke and mirrors of the state, we are led to believe that the political class has rights that we as individual human beings do not possess! As Bastiat put it:

If a right does not exist in any of the individuals of what for brevity’s sake we call a nation, how should it exist in the nation itself? How, above all, should it exist in that fraction of a nation which exercises delegated rights of government? How could individuals delegate rights they do not themselves possess?

This consideration can only lead me to a singular conclusion: psychiatrists are complicit in the use of state violence against those they deem to be dangerous without any objective, scientific method of determination, and this violence is based on a right that no man actually possesses individually. This is the world brought about by those who believe rights are legal privileges of the state.

Summarizing Remarks

Let us briefly summarize what has been discussed here. In the understanding of rights, there are two general positions: rights precede the state because they come from the quality of being human or rights are granted solely by the state. There are no reconciliations to be made between these two positions, for they are mutually exclusive. History has shown us that even states that seek to protect human rights will trample over them, if rights are decided upon by legislators and rulers. Furthermore, these political elites will use court intellectuals to back up their power to decide legal privileges, usually in the form of utilitarian arguments and emotional discharges. When their plans go awry and people fight back, the tax payer usually foots the bill for the mistakes of the elites.

Can this gloomy state of affairs be avoided? Thankfully it is so. If we return to the study of natural law and natural rights, we can defend ourselves and the vulnerable from that oppression that takes the form of benevolence and paternal protection. Indeed, there are individuals within the field of mental health who recognize that the spirit of helping others comes from VOLUNTARY ACTION rather than VIOLENCE. One such individual is the late Dr. Thomas Szasz, whom I will quote from here:

What would become of psychiatry if involuntary psychiatric diagnoses, hospitalizations, and treatments were abolished? In principle, psychiatry would then become more like any other medical specialty, such as dermatology or opthalmology—practiced only on voluntary clients. More generally, it would become like any other profession, such as accounting or architecture—contracting for the sale of certain services and products with informed buyers. In practice psychiatry would then have to identify and define—as it never has to before—the services it offers for sale. Clearly, such a change would spell doom of psychiatry as we now know it.

Further Reading

Debate Over Involuntary Treatment of Mentally Ill Increases as States Consider New Laws. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://khn.org/morning-breakout/dr00002806/

Involuntary Commitment. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://psychrights.org/States/Maine/InvoluntaryCommitmentbyAliciaCurtis.htm

Involuntary Commitment and Involuntary Treatment Concepts MENTAL ILLNESS POLICY ORG. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/ivc/involuntary-commitment-concepts.html

Involuntary Psychiatric Hospitalization. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/therapy-it-s-more-just-talk/201310/involuntary-psychiatric-hospitalization

Noteworthy case: Pennsylvania man awarded $1.1 million for involuntary commitment (2003). (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.psychcrime.org/news/index.php?vd=944&t=Noteworthy case: Pennsylvania man awarded $1.1 million for involuntary commitment (2003)

Rothbard, M. (n.d.). Introduction to Natural Law. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from https://mises.org/library/introduction-natural-law

Strategies of Psychiatric Coercion. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.cato-unbound.org/2012/08/06/jeffrey-schaler/strategies-psychiatric-coercion

The Bastiat Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from https://mises.org/library/bastiat-collection

Thomas Szasz on involuntary commitment | CCHR International. (2013). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from https://www.cchrint.org/about-us/co-founder-dr-thomas-szasz/quotes-on-involuntary-commitment/

Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html

Vognar, D. (n.d.). We Need to Expand Involuntary Treatment for Severe Mental Illness. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-vognar/involuntary-treatment_b_1652151.html

Waynesboro Police Settle Lawsuit Over Wrongful Arrest. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.nbc29.com/story/33356694/waynesboro-police-settle-lawsuit-over-wrongful-arrest