Rent seeking for madness: the political economy of mental asylums in the United States, 1870 to 1910

My paper with Raymond March on the expansion of mental asylums in America between 1870 and 1910 is now publicly available at Public Choice. The paper is substantially revised from the SSRN version available online but the main results still hold: there was a rent-seeking force behind the expansion. The abstract is below and the article can be found here:

From the end of the Civil War to the onset of the Great War, the United States experienced an unprecedented increase in commitment rates for mental asylums. Historians and sociologists often explain this increase by noting that public sentiment called for widespread involuntary institutionalization to avoid the supposed threat of insanity to social well-being. However, that explanation neglects expanding rent seeking within psychiatry and the broader medical field over the same period. In this paper, we argue that stronger political influence from mental healthcare providers contributed significantly to the rise in institutionalization. We test our claim empirically with reference to the catalog of medical regulations from 1870 to 1910, as well as primary sources documenting rates of insanity at the state level. Our findings provide an alternative explanation for the historical rise in US institutionalizations.

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