Monday, November 14, 2005

An evening at FEE with Dr. Thomas Szasz

Last night's Evening at FEE was truly remarkable, and very long, with Dr. Thomas Szasz. Briefly, it was about psychiatry, its myths, and its use of coercive state powers. Afterward, the questions must have lasted a half-hour, and they produced some very lively discussions. It was by the far the longest Evening at FEE that I can remember, and I talked for quite a while afterward with several people. I was a bit tired on the way home, and with singing along with Sinatra to help keep me awake, instead of exiting from eastbound I-287 onto the northbound Saw Mill Parkway, I took the exit just before -- southbound I-87, heading toward the city. Fortunately it was a detour of only 10 miles before I could get off and turn around.

Since it was very long and quite complicated, if you all shall forgive me, I will merely link to the audio when it's available. Similarly, I never did get around to summarizing last month's Evening at FEE, with Dr. Vernon Smith. Frankly, I couldn't do his lecture justice either, but the audio is available on the web page (a 51-meg MP3). However, the audio (unfortunately? thankfully?) doesn't include my singing to his wife as we chatted afterward.

During the social hour after last night's lecture, I remarked to Dr. Richard Ebeling, president of FEE, "I'll wager it was the first time a lecturer ever uttered the word 'orgasm' here." He replied, "Or 'masturbation'!" Dr. Szasz had said in his lecture that masturbation was once considered a mental illness, but now it is sometimes considered therapy. (I wonder how the search engines will treat my blog with its own first occurrences of those words!)

There was a book Dr. Szasz referenced. Its precise title escaped him at the time, which I was happy to provide afterward. I consider Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, one of the greatest books ever written. (If you click the title, it will take you to a web page that has it available online.) It is worth reading just for its history on "The Mississippi Scheme" (how France debauched her currency in the 18th century) and the "stock-jobbing" in early 18th century England:
Exchange Alley was in a fever of excitement. The Company's stock, which had been at a hundred and thirty the previous day, gradually rose to three hundred, and continued to rise with the most astonishing rapidity during the whole time that the bill in its several stages was under discussion. Mr. Walpole was almost the only statesman in the House who spoke out boldly against it. He warned them, in eloquent and solemn language, of the evils that would ensue. It countenanced, he said, "the dangerous practice of stockjobbing, and would divert the genius of the nation from trade and industry. It would hold out a dangerous lure to decoy the unwary to their ruin, by making them part with the earnings of their labour for a prospect of imaginary wealth. The great principle of the project was an evil of first-rate magnitude; it was to raise artificially the value of the stock, by exciting and keeping up a general infatuation, and by promising dividends out of funds which could never be adequate to the purpose. In a prophetic spirit he added, that if the plan succeeded, the directors would become masters of the government, form a new and absolute aristocracy in the kingdom, and control the resolutions of the legislature. If it failed, which he was convinced it would, the result would bring general discontent and ruin upon the country. Such would be the delusion, that when the evil day came, as come it would, the people would start up, as from a dream, and ask themselves if these things could have been true. All his eloquence was in vain. He was looked upon as a false prophet, or compared to the hoarse raven, croaking omens of evil. His friends, however, compared him to Cassandra, predicting evils which would only be believed when they came home to men's hearths, and stared them in the face at their own boards. Although, in former times, the House had listened with the utmost attention to every word that fell from his lips, the benches became deserted when it was known that he would speak on the South Sea question.
There are additional chapters on Holland's "tulip mania," witches, alchemy, and even the Crusades. It's a remarkable book, and I'm surprised I haven't already included it in my links.

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