The Cost of Kindness
A libertarian economist, Bryan Caplan, believes that mental illness is a false category. He believes that mental illness is a false category used to criticize and control other people’s “unusual preferences.” He is rather adamant on this position. This is an argument that even other libertarians and anarchists find hard to swallow.
This week, the New Yorker published an article on the torture of mentally ill inmates in Florida jails and prisons. The story is shocking, gruesome, and all too tragic. States have slashed budgets for the care of mentally ill people (or people with “unusual preferences” in Caplan lingo), often end up on the street and needing to commit petty crimes in order to eat or by no choice of their own because they are mentally ill and cannot control their actions. This means that they often end up in prisons with under-trained and under-budgeted prison guards who use physical force to control the unruly.
The New Yorker article filled me with despair. I wonder: Why do so many people have ideas on mental illness which seem like they have not changed since the days of Bedlam? Are the people who become prison guards naturally cruel, or quickly become so because of the extremely stressful circumstances? Is Bryan Caplan’s insistence on treating mental illness as a policy preference a form of compassion, or a form of cruelty?
There are kind and compassionate ways for law enforcement to deal with the mentally ill. Portland Police are trying more humane methods. Instead of going to shoot first and quickly, the Portland Police are trying more humane methods. I wonder how much they cost. The article tells the story about a mentally ill man who was thrusting a Samurai sword at random strangers. They surrounded the sword wielder for hours to make sure he did not hurt anyone and in the wee hours, they went home. No bullets were fired, no one was hurt or killed. The would be Samurai was gone in the morning. But this must cost a lot of money. The police had wages to be paid, they could not respond to other emergencies during the time frame.
The citizens of Portland seem willing to pay the price for a more humane method of policing and interacting with the mentally ill. I wonder if Americans as a nation are willing to pay the same price. The answer depressingly seems to be no.
In that light, reconsider Bryan Caplan’s observations or beliefs on mental illness as a choice. Are they a way of curtailing police brutality against the mentally ill? We recognize that people are making a personal choices and leave them alone. Or are they merely away to justify a small government and no spending world-view? People can wave around Samurai Swords in public if they choose, and suffer the consequences of a quick bullet.
The Portland method is more humane. The mentally ill do not know what they are doing from time to time but police need to respond to incidents of crime and potentially dangerous behavior. This includes petty theft and waiving around swords in public. The role of the police should be to fight crime while doing no harm or reducing harm. This means training in conflict de-escalation and non-violent policing methods. These cost money though. So does proper healthcare for the mentally ill and as a nation we seem far away from wanting to pay for these things.
Quick bullets and starvation and murder reign for now.