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17-04-2021

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

Journal:
Public Choice
Authors:
Vincent Geloso, Raymond J. March
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Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s11127-021-00890-1.

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Abstract

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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