“There are no solutions, only trade-offs,” Thomas Sowell famously said. When government takes action, even if that action is desperately needed, we still give something up. In the case of the Wuhan virus — with the endless mask mandates, social restrictions, and shutdowns it has ushered in — that something is our precious freedom.
The American founders recognized this conundrum. According to James Madison in Federalist 37, one of the greatest challenges of the Constitutional Convention was to find the right combination, the right proportions, of government power and individual liberty. The more we ask from our government, the more freedom it takes from us in exchange.
These days, as government takes more and more of our freedom, including mandating in many places that we must mask ourselves, it is time to ask serious questions about these trade-offs.
Freedom Is Priceless
It’s easy to see these trade-offs in the various shutdown orders. The state tries to protect us from a pandemic, and what is the result? A father battles depression while on indefinite furlough. A mom hides in the closet, Zoom call on mute while kids scream in the next room. Local restaurants close forever. There’s no live sports, no live concerts. Grandma lives without hugs and kisses. Can you really call that living?
The trade-offs of mandated masking are more subtle. After all, the financial outlay is modest. Now that the shortage is over, you can purchase a variety of face coverings at a variety of price points. You can even sew your own mask or make one from a bandanna and rubber bands. In dollars and cents, masking up seems a small price to pay for protection from illness.
Of course, wearing the mask might cause some discomfort as it pulls on the ears, fogs up the glasses, and requires constant adjustments. But again, these are minor complaints. A pandemic is no time to focus on the trivial.
Yet on closer look, the government intrusion runs deeper. Masks impair communication. They muffle the sound of voices. They cover half the face, veiling nonverbal cues. What is the cost of a world without smiles?
Masks also convey a silent message. They remind us, constantly, to be on our guard. At the grocery store, carts pass each other noiselessly. Every customer is now a vector for disease. The treasured face of a friend now harbors danger. Masks don’t let us forget, even for a moment, that a pandemic is on the prowl.
Trust the Experts?
So why are we masking? According to the governor’s order, the mask requirement is based on “the unanimous recommendation of the public health experts.” As everyone knows, if we just mask up, the rate of coronavirus transmission will go down. If we just mask up, we can avoid longer and stricter lockdowns. Maybe someday we can finally get back to our normal, pre-pandemic lives.
But who are these public health experts, and are they really unanimous? I am concerned our governor has overstated his case. To quote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, “A mask may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others” (emphasis added).
That sounds tenuous at best, a statement drafted by attorneys to cover indeterminate scientific findings. Similarly, the most recent guidance from the World Health Organization states, “At the present time, the widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence” (emphasis added).
CDC and WHO guidance offer far short of a “unanimous recommendation.” In addition, many studies by less-prestigious organizations and people are also challenging the “unanimous recommendation of the public health experts.”
We are fortunate to have a constitutional form of government, where the public has freedom of speech and voting rights — rights we must exercise. We must take a clear-eyed look at the trade-offs involved in universal masking and other pandemic protection measures. We must challenge the so-called unanimous recommendations of so-called experts, and dig deeper. Are these measures truly in the best interest of public health? Should our elected officials be imposing one-size-fits-all mandates?
If we do this, perhaps there is hope for a better balance between government power and individual freedom, even in a pandemic.