November 8, 2009

Cautionary Observations for My Fellow Idealists

As progressive idealists, you seem nearer than ever to achieving many of your goals for America. At the least, you have made a sharp turn in the direction you have sought for so long. You have a president of the United States and a Congress who seem devoted to the dreams of those who seek social justice, a less prejudiced and less predatory society, a fair if not equal distribution of wealth, more power to the working class, a more closely regulated economic system, and a more gentle international hand. You have a government that largely shares your concerns about health care, education and the environment.

On the verge, as you are, of seeing many of your ideals come to fruition, please hesitate for a moment. Those of us immersed in political reform have a tendency to take the underlying existence of America for granted. Those of us who are activists and idealists often tend to overlook the basic historical structure or underlying principles of the government and the economy. As a young reformer, I focused on what I felt were more urgent and immediate issues, such as racism, the abuse of women and children, poverty and injustice — and especially the reform of psychiatry and the mental health system. I felt free to pursue these ideals while taking for granted that America as I knew it would continue.

For many idealistic reformers, it is as if we live on a giant ocean liner, preoccupied with improving equality and justice among the crew and passengers, without wondering if the ship itself might be in danger. We do so without thinking much about what makes the ship operate so safely for most of its passengers, including us as we pursue our reforms.

Today the ship of state is in grave danger, requiring all of us to put our previous concerns somewhat aside, lest we careen at breakneck speed through a sea of unanticipated hazards. We could end up playing our band with idealistic fervor as the deck disappears beneath our feet.

That’s the first and most critical point: The necessity of taking a deep breath and asking ourselves if we are endangering America while we reform her by exercising too much government power, however idealistically. Will we find ourselves confronted with a congress and an executive branch so unchecked in their power and authority that they run roughshod over the checks and balances that have maintained our freedom and allowed our economy to flourish? In our determination to improve health care and the environment, or to rescue and monitor the financial system, will we demolish the principles that have previously restrained government and promoted individual liberty — leaving future generations to bear the fiscal burden?

Remember, the increasingly centralized government that now promotes your progressive ideals could, in one voting cycle, become an equally or more powerful government that crushes all your ideals. You cannot be guaranteed that men and women of your own political persuasion will continue to direct the power structure you are now so energetically building.

The second point has to do with human nature and the need to place checks upon its unbridled expression. In our youth, we are acutely aware of the flaws of other human beings, but naturally much less so of our own. It is easy to divide people into those with good, altruistic intentions and those with bad, selfish intentions. I used to equate the left with the good and the right with the bad. I was sure that the world would be a much better place if only we could elect leaders who were more like me in being well-intentioned and devoted to protecting and empowering the most vulnerable citizens.

Not having been adequately educated in American history, most of us have too little understanding of the underlying system — the principles and historical ideals — within which we hope to implement our marvelous intentions. We don’t know that the Founders conducted lengthy discussions and debates, and wrote extensively, about the pitfalls of good intentions and about the treacherousness of relying on charismatic rather than on the rule of law. We have little idea that they thoroughly evaluated every possible form of government and concluded that the optimal and only safe role of government was to protect the liberty of its citizens rather than to promote their welfare or to implement majority rule. We haven’t read their profound discussions of human nature from which they concluded that checks and balances were needed to prevent political leaders, with or without good intentions, from imposing their will on a free people. Nor do we realize how much they distrusted democracy. In majority rule they saw the inevitability of mob rule. They observed that, throughout history, experiments in unbridled democracy led to chaos and then tyranny. The Bill of Rights became the ultimate means of protecting individual liberty from the excesses of government and democracy.

The Founders also believed that the success of government ultimately depended on a high level of responsibility and altruism among its citizens. Without a citizenry educated in the values of liberty and personal responsibility, any form of government would quickly degenerate into tyranny.

The Founders were not callous or self-centered people. Most of them risked their lives, their families and their fortunes to fight for independence and the principle of liberty. They also created many institutions that continue to serve our citizens, from the U. S. Postal Service to local fire departments, from great universities to community hospitals. They initiated reforms in the penal code and prison system, and even in mental hospital care. But they did not place trust in the benevolence of government bureaucrats or politicians.

This cannot be over-emphasized. The American government was instituted to protect freedom. In turn, society with its local communities, schools and churches was expected to inspire a high level of personal responsibility, patriotism, respect for individual rights, and devotion to the common good. George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason: One would be hard pressed to find a Founder or any other leader of the American Revolution who did not believe in these basic principles of a limited government entrusted with the protection of individual liberty and a robust society entrusted with the promotion of the love of liberty and community.

The Founders purposely created a government so internally and externally restrained that the energy of this free people would be unleashed for the ultimate betterment of all. The survival of the United States of America through the bloody Civil War and the abolition of slavery, alongside the granting of voting rights to women and then to all Americans, and the ultimate end to segregation are among the many proofs of the workability of this Constitutional system. Our prosperity over these many years, and our successful defense and promotion of freedom around the world, are further evidence.

Those who doubt these observations about the nature of our founding principles should refresh themselves with the nation’s three most familiar and basic documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Beyond that, they may wish to sample the voluminous writings in support of the Constitution in the Federalist papers. And finally they may want to read or read some of the anti-Federalist papers written in argument against the proposed Constitution before it was enacted. Opponents of the Constitution spoke even more fervently about the dangers of giving too much power to a congress or a president, and their dire predictions seem prescient in light of what is now transpiring in Washington, DC.

I return to images of myself as young reformer with strongly progressive leanings. I had good intentions; and I had faith that leaders with good intentions could immeasurably improve the world. I had no idea that the Founders had looked carefully into this aspect of human nature and concluded that it was a menace to liberty and society. I failed to fully appreciate that my freedom to think and to promote my ideals was protected by the most marvelous principles ever embodied in government — principles intended to prevent idealists like me and millions of other well-intentioned people from using the government to impose our views on society and on other individuals. Now this has been reversed. The progressive idealists have taken over the U.S. government with little to restrain them.

My decision to publish this essay on Huffington Post has been made after much deliberation. I have not wanted to complicate my reform efforts in psychiatry by voicing my concerns about the fate of the nation. But America is now in such a precarious state that all of us must make the survival of our nation our highest ideal and most important goal. At the least, we need to be able to speak our minds during these very unsettling times and I hope you will greet these remarks in that spirit.

My fellow idealists, please slow down. Reconsider this frantic bulldozing of the checks and balances that have previously restrained government power. It’s time to re-examine what’s happening as the president of the United States and the U.S. Congress take actions that undermine the very principles of liberty and personal responsibility that have given all of us such extraordinary opportunities to live our own lives as idealists and reformers.

Peter R. Breggin, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Ithaca, New York, and the Founder of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology. His most recent book is “Medication Madness: The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Violence, Suicide and Crime” (2008) is now in paperback. His website is Email:

The Conscience of Psychiatry: The Reform Work of Peter R. Breggin, M.D. is the first biography of Dr. Breggin’s work. Edited and sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, it will be published in the fall 2009. Advance orders with an audio bonus can be purchased only on