Gordon Tullock Meets Phineas Gage: The Political Economy of Lobotomies in the United States

I have a new working paper available. This one is co-authored with Raymond March of North Dakota State University. This paper is the first leg of a research agenda on the topic of the political economy of psychiatric care in the first half of the 20th century. The topic may appear “odd” at first sight, but there is much that this topic (because it deals with marginalized people in a highly information-asymmetric world) can provide in terms of insights for the economics profession (and vice-versa for history). The paper can be consulted here on SSRN and the abstract is below:

In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a “lobotomy boom” where the use of the lobotomy expanded exponentially. We engage in a comparative institutional analysis, following the framework developed by Tullock (2005), to explain why the lobotomy gained popularity and widespread use despite widespread scientific consensus it was ineffective. We argue that government provision and funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy. We support this claim by noting the lobotomy had virtually disappeared from private mental hospitals and asylums before the boom and was less used beforehand. This paper provides a more robust explanation for the lobotomy boom in the US and expands on the literature examining the relationship between state funding and scientific inquiry.


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