Face masks are “all we’ve got right now to fight this virus, and it is up to each one of us to do our part,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly told reporters last week. Kelly signed an executive order last Thursday requiring all Kansans to wear masks when in public spaces. The best Kelly’s got, though, might not be best for every Kansan.
A 2015 randomized controlled study published in the British Medical Journal evaluated 1607 health care workers throughout 14 hospitals. It revealed the continuous use of cloth masks increased respiratory infection rates, with the type of mask and length of wear as relevant factors. Regardless of the efficacy of masks, however, should a governor or any government authority have the power to cover your mouth?
Government tends to grow during crises, and as Robert Higgs from the Independent Institute points out in his book “Crisis and Leviathan,” that growth begins with an expansion of power. From labor disputes and riots in 1886 that propelled public support for expanded federal power to regulate industry, to the 9/11 tragedy that gave way to the Patriot Act growing the government’s power to surveil Americans, crises have historically served as the perfect matrix for government to swell its power and reach into our personal lives.
The common denominator is public fear. In 1886, it was fear of railroad companies growing too powerful or labor strikes stopping their delivery of supplies. In 2001, it was fear that neighbors might be terrorists. In both cases, fear inspired public opinion that government should step in. Fear might be justified in some circumstances, and perhaps the Wuhan virus pandemic is one of them, but to the extent that fear pries open our hands to let loose of personal freedom, it also subjects those hands to be tied by tyranny.
It’s not just the Kansas governor. Attorney General William Barr recently created a task force to investigate anti-government extremists after certain groups instigated violence following the death of George Floyd.
In Barr’s June 26 memo, he wrote, “The task force will develop detailed information about violent anti-government extremist individuals, networks and movements — and will share that information as appropriate with federal, state and local law enforcement.” He added, “The ultimate goal of the task force will be … to understand these groups well enough that we can stop such violence before it occurs and ultimately eliminate it as a threat.”
A free society cannot flourish without just rule of law, but when the government starts spending resources on investigating “anti-government” American citizens deemed “extremists” to stop crime “before it occurs,” one should at least raise an eyebrow. Fear of riots and radical groups such as Antifa shouldn’t drive our support for government expansion or increased supervision. It might be Antifa today, but it could be you tomorrow.
Consider these words from our own Declaration of Independence: “[W]henever any form of government becomes destructive of [our unalienable rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” We’ve entered a dangerous time if speaking those words places you on a government watch-list.
Higgs describes the ratcheting effect of government growth. It starts with a crisis justifying expanded power, which requires resources to exercise it — another upward click in the ratchet of non-retractable government growth. No matter the reassurance or motivational tenor that accompanies the rally cry of “safety,” we should remember that no one feels safe when he’s handcuffed, nor should he, even if only under the threat of such arrest.
Kelly got the second part right, though: “[I]t is up to each one of us to do our part.” It’s not up to President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci to do our part in remaining vigilant and informed. It’s not up to Congress to do our part in stimulating our economy. And it’s not up to a governor to ensure we wear masks.
It’s up to each of us to care about others enough to wash our hands, stay home when we’re sick, support those who feel they need to shelter in place, educate people in our circles of influence, and wear masks as a precautionary measure. Government mask enforcement isn’t “all we’ve got right now to fight this virus.”
Consider the greater weapons of conscientiousness, courtesy, kindness, and charity. I choose to fight with those, and I’m not alone. I know volunteers who have delivered meals to the elderly, others who’ve traveled and then responsibly self-quarantined, and many who have gladly worn masks in our mission while preparing meals for the homeless.
Before the government steps in to protect us from each other, let’s exercise real compassion and neighborly concern — and do it ourselves. This love for others won’t just prevent the spread of a virus. It will preserve our liberty.