Topic: Cato Publications

Cato Unbound: Mental Health and the Law

We have lately witnessed several high-profile criminal events for which insanity may or may not be a tempting explanation. To name only the most prominent, consider the spree killings in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Anders Breivik’s rampage in Norway; and the shooting of former representative Gabrielle Giffords and a group of her constituents. Giffords’ shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was medicated against his will for nearly a year and recently entered a guilty plea. Anders Breivik has denied the suggestion that he was mentally ill, insisting that he is of sound mind and motivated only by ideology.

At Cato Unbound this month, we’re taking a close look at mental health and the law. American University’s Dr. Jeffrey A. Schaler is skeptical that “insanity” is a good explanation for criminal—or any—behavior. Indeed, Schaler denies that “mental illness” is a valid category of disease. For that reason he is also one of the world’s foremost exponents of consensual psychiatry, a branch of the discipline first comprehensively defended by Dr. Thomas Szasz: if a patient wishes to be treated, he should be allowed to seek treatment; if not, his behavior remains his own responsibility.

Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, disagrees in part: while mental illness is unlike many other diseases, those who present a clear threat to others owing to mental illness should not be treated either as criminals or as harmless. They have a condition that needs to be treated in order for them to rejoin the rest of society.

Jacob Sullum, a journalist and author who has often written on mental health, therapy, and the law, points out that psychiatry can’t have things both ways—either a criminal is responsible for his actions, in which case he should be punished; or the criminal is not responsible for his actions, in which case one might argue for involuntary treatment. Yet current laws, particularly regarding sexually violent predators, often try to do both to the same person.

Amanda Pustilnik, an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland, argues that the outrage about coercive psychiatry is misplaced: more mentally ill people inhabit our prison system than are to be found in our psychiatric hospitals. They get there not because they are more criminal, but because they are less cooperative with police, worse at defending themselves in court, and find it difficult to comply with the rules of prison life and parole. Many of these people would prefer to be in mental institutions, where they would receive the treatment they both need and want.

The conversation will remain open through the end of the month, so be sure to subscribe via RSS or follow us on Twitter. We welcome readers’ letters and may publish them at our option; send them to J Kuznicki (at) cato . org.

You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist

It got a lot of attention this morning when I tweeted, “You’re Eight Times More Likely to be Killed by a Police Officer than a Terrorist.” It’s been quickly retweeted dozens of times, indicating that the idea is interesting to many people. So let’s discuss it in more than 140 characters.

In case it needs saying: Police officers are unlike terrorists in almost all respects. Crucially, the goal of the former, in their vastest majority, is to have a stable, peaceful, safe, law-abiding society, which is a goal we all share. The goal of the latter is … well, it’s complicated. I’ve cited my favorite expert on that, Audrey Kurth Cronin, here and here and here. Needless to say, the goal of terrorists is not that peaceful, safe, stable society.

I picked up the statistic from a blog post called: “Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid,” which in turn cites the National Safety Council for this and lots of other numbers reflecting likelihoods of dying from various causes. So dispute the number(s) with them, if you care to.

I take it as a given that your mileage may vary. If you dwell in the suburbs or a rural area, and especially if you’re wealthy, white, and well-spoken, your likelihood of death from these two sources probably converges somewhat (at very close to zero).

The point of the quote is to focus people on sources of mortality society-wide, because this focus can guide public policy efforts at reducing death. (Thus, the number is not a product of the base rate fallacy.) In my opinion, too many people are still transfixed by terrorism despite the collapse of Al Qaeda over the last decade and the quite manageable—indeed, the quite well-managed—danger that terrorism presents our society today.

If you want to indulge your fears and prioritize terrorism, you’ll have plenty of help, and neither this blog post nor any other appeal to reason or statistics is likely to convince you. Among the John Mueller articles I would recommend, though, is “Witches, Communists, and Terrorists: Evaluating the Risks and Tallying the Costs” (with Mark Stewart).

If one wants to be clinical about what things reduce death to Americans, one should ask why police officers are such a significant source of danger. I have some ideas.

Cato’s work on the War on Drugs shows how it produces danger to the public and law enforcement both, not to mention loss of privacy and civil liberties, disrespect for law enforcement, disregard of the rule of law, and so on. Is the sum total of mortality and morbidity reduced or increased by the War on Drugs? I don’t know to say. But the War on Drugs certainly increases the danger to innocent people (including law enforcement personnel), where drug legalization would allow harm to naturally concentrate on the people who choose unwisely to use drugs.

The militarization of law enforcement probably contributes to the danger. Cato’s Botched Paramilitary Police Raids map illustrates the problem of over-aggressive policing. Cato alum Radley Balko now documents these issues at the Huffington Post. Try out his “Cop or Soldier?” quiz.

There are some bad apples in the police officer barrel. Given the power that law enforcement personnel have—up to and including the power to kill—I’m not satisfied that standards of professionalism are up to snuff. You can follow the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project on Twitter at @NPMRP.

If the provocative statistic cited above got your attention, that’s good. If it adds a little more to your efforts at producing a safe, stable, peaceful, and free society, all the better.

Mass Tragedy Boilerplate and Rebuttal

On the road last week, and allergic to getting too heavily involved in the issue de l’heure, I only today saw Holman Jenkins’ Wall Street Journal commentary: “Can Data Mining Stop the Killing?

After the Aurora theater massacre, it might be fair to ask what kinds of things the NSA has programmed its algorithms to look for. Did it, or could it have, picked up on Mr. Holmes’s activities? And if not, what exactly are we getting for the money we spend on data mining?

Other than to collect it in a great mass along with data about all of us, the NSA could not have “picked up on” Mr. Holmes’s activities. As I wrote earlier this year about data mining’s potential for averting school shootings:

“[D]ata mining doesn’t have the capacity to predict rare events like terrorism or school shootings. The precursors of such events are not consistent the way, say, credit card fraud is. Data mining for campus violence would produce many false leads while missing real events. The costs in dollars and privacy would not be rewarded by gains in security and safety.

Jeff Jonas and I wrote about this in our 2006 Cato Policy Analysis, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.”

If the NSA has data about the pathetic loser, Mr. Holmes, and if it were to let us know about it, all that would do is provide lenses for some pundit’s 20/20 hindsight. Data about past events always points to the future that occurred. But there is not enough commonality among rare and sporadic mass shootings to use their characteristics as predictors of future shootings.

Jenkins doesn’t drive hard toward concluding that data mining would have helped, but his inquiry is mass tragedy boilerplate. It’s been rebutted by me and others many times.

Fair and Balanced, Think Tank Edition

The website CapitolWords.org allows you to track the use of words uttered by members of Congress. Our intern wrangler, Michael Hamilton, decided to compare uses of the term “Cato Institute” to the names of other think tanks around town. Here’s what he found:

Cato is mentioned roughly equally by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. It’s hard to draw conclusions based solely on members’ use of the names of think tanks, but it seems clear that Democrats and Republicans make roughly equal use of Cato research in making appeals to their colleagues and the public.

Note: The Brookings Institution is sometimes misstated as “Brookings Institute,” so both are included.

This Month’s Cato Unbound: Liberty, Commerce, and Literature

This month’s Cato Unbound is on the theme of Liberty, Commerce, and Literature. We all know that the western canon is often extraordinarily critical of the free market, sometimes without its authors appearing to understand very much about economics at all. But why should this be? Literature as we know it owes much to commercial society. Before the early modern era, one could almost never make a living as a writer. People read many fewer books – if they could read at all – and serious literature frequently belonged to the upper classes alone. It would be odd if literature were so unaware of the institutions that made it so popular in today’s commercial, market-driven world.

In her lead essay for Cato Unbound, literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. Good literature is not mere propaganda – for either side – and readings that collapse the great books into anti-capitalist polemic are likely to be missing a lot.

In his response essay, Robert A. Heinlein biographer William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of these “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

Poet and literary theorist Frederick Turner suggests a structural explanation for why scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon – which is not, he adds, really that anti-commercial at all: Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. Both built up their own legitimacy by arguing against that of mere businessmen. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

Libertarian activist and science fiction scholar Amy H. Sturgis adds that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.

As always, our panelists will continue to discuss and debate through the end of the month. We also welcome your letters, which we may publish at our option. Send them to JKuznicki [at] cato [dot] org.

Is the Individual Mandate a Tax?

From my 2010 paper “Obama’s Prescription for Low-Wage Workers; High Implicit Taxes, Higher Premiums”:

President Obama argues that a legal requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance is not a tax. Yet many economists, including some of President Obama’s economic advisers, consider it to be a type of tax.

Princeton University health economist Uwe Reinhardt writes, “[Just because] the fiscal flows triggered by [the] mandate would not flow directly through the public budgets does not detract from the measure’s status of a bona fide tax.”

MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber writes, “Suppose … the government mandated that everyone buy full insurance at the average price… . This would not be a very attractive plan to careful consumers … who could view themselves as essentially being taxed in order to support this market, by paying higher premiums than they should based on their risk.”

President Obama’s National Economic Council chairman Larry Summers writes, “Essentially, mandated benefits are like public programs financed by benefit taxes.”

Sherry Glied, President Obama’s appointee to assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, writes, “The individual mandate … is in many respects analogous to a tax. It requires people to make payments for something whether they want it or not.”

When the Clinton administration proposed an individual mandate in 1993, the CBO went so far as to treat the mandatory premiums that Americans would pay as federal revenues and include them in the federal budget. So far, the CBO has not done the same for the mandates in the House and Senate bills. (As Reinhardt suggests, that does not imply that those mandates are not a tax.)

Each bill would also impose penalties on individuals (and employers) who do not comply with the health-insurance mandates. Those penalties would be paid to the Internal Revenue Service along with one’s income taxes.

Adler on How the IRS Is Rewriting ObamaCare to Tax Employers

Jonathan H. Adler is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University.  In this new Cato Institute video, Adler explains how a recently finalized IRS rule implementing ObamaCare taxes employers without any statutory authority.

For more, see this previous Cato video, “States Should Flatly Reject ObamaCare Exchanges”:

See also our November 2011 op-ed on this IRS rule that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.