All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 2002

No Responsibility, No Freedom

The Brave New World Is Here


Andrea Yates was not the only person whose free will was on trial last winter. Thus the Yates murder case underscores the affront represented by the psychiatric (and any other reductionist-positivist) worldview. She drowned her five young children in a bathtub last year and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. (The jury nevertheless convicted her of murder.) The claim behind that plea is that mental illness prevented her from knowing right from wrong. (It’s not clear if that also means she couldn’t help it. Theoretically, one could be confused about right and wrong and still have control over one’s actions. Conversely, in theory, one could know right from wrong but believe one had no choice but to commit an evil act. The issues are separable, and both came up at the trial.)

Why is this an affront? Living well requires effort—thinking about and planning one’s future, getting out of bed on time every day, discharging one’s responsibilities with care, managing interpersonal conflict, being decent to one’s fellow human beings (even when they don’t deserve it), and making sure there’s sustenance for self and family. (If the effort at times seems minimal, that’s because the activities have become habits, which are the products of earlier effort.)

But occasionally people rebel against life’s demands. Some forms of rebellion (against particular, oppressive circumstances) are unobjectionable, even admirable. But some people simply resign from adult life and try to get others to care for them. If they fail at that, they may look for a way out by killing themselves or others.

The psychiatrists say that only a brain “disorder” can account for such behavior. This implies that those who live well—and let live—deserve no moral credit.

Then again, if Andrea Yates isn’t responsible for killing her children, perhaps you and I aren’t responsible for not killing ours. Philosopher John R. Searle writes, “It is an amazing fact that everything in our conscious life . . . is caused by brain processes.” (Emphasis added; quoted in Thomas Szasz, The Meaning of Mind, p. 82.)

The brave new world is here. Mind is brain. Neurochemistry is destiny. No freedom, no responsibility. No responsibility, no freedom.

That’s where this all leads.

* * *

Beginning in the late nineteenth century the states and then the federal government launched an all-out attack on . . . margarine. What was the threat from the butter substitute? Adam Young relates the tale.

It was a sad day when Jerry Lewis went hat-in-hand to Congress seeking taxpayer money for his hitherto private charity.
P. Gardner Goldsmith still remembers the day.

The movement to foster a “living wage” gains momentum. Pressure mounts on cities to require their private contractors to pay wages higher than those set by the market. Charles Baird says the intended beneficiaries will suffer.

To catch perpetrators of victimless crimes the government must run sting operations. But such operations run afoul of a pillar of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Joseph Fulda explains.

The push for so-called economic human rights is garbed in humanitarianism. But at bottom, Thomas Woods writes, it’s an effort to establish legal plunder on behalf of people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

There’s a new kind of revolutionary at work in Peru. He runs a railroad and reads Atlas Shrugged. Bill Steigerwald spent time with him and filed a report.

The X-Files is going off the air. Was it a boon for devotees of the freedom philosophy? See what Ray Keating has to say.

A businessman predicts that the next Marx is out there somewhere. Norman Barry has an idea what he’ll be like.

Should the state be able to deprive someone of the right to own a gun because he talks crazy? Scott McPherson looks at a case out of Alaska.

Opponents of capitalism have a nasty habit of picking out a group of human beings and branding them “parasites.” David Levy and Sandra Peart bring the old story up to date.

Free-market advocates can demonstrate theoretically that tariffs, at best, do no good and, at worst, do much harm. Now, Larry Schweikart writes, in the case of two celebrated tariffs the data is available to illustrate the theory.

John Rawls renovated political philosophy in the 1970s with his book A Theory of Justice. It supposedly gave new life to the welfare state. But did it really? Robert Lawson takes another look.

China’s separation of city dwellers and rural inhabitants has all the features of apartheid. Christopher Lingle explains how that holds back the country’s progress.

Changes are brewing in our columns department. In this issue Dwight Lee wraps up his more than four-year run of “Economic Notions.” We thank Dwight for his excellent primer in economic principles. Next month begins a new and exciting feature.

This month: Mark Skousen sees worth in the “behavioral economists.” Lawrence Reed reports on free-market activity in Rwanda. Doug Bandow laments the war on charity. Donald Boudreaux wonders what the fuss is over “absorbing” immigrants. Russell Roberts asks if the invisible hand failed in Enron’s case. And Aeon Skoble, hearing George Will’s claim that capitalism is a government project, exclaims, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our reviewers render verdicts on volumes about campaign-finance reform’s threat to free speech, the war on drugs, the importance of free capital markets, Cuba, public works, and the capital structure.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.