If government's first duty is to protect us, how can masks in public be optional?

If government's first duty is to protect us, how can masks in public be optional?
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COVID-19 has killed over 148,000 Americans and continues to kill hundreds more every day. Confirmed cases exceed four million, and federal health officials say the actual number of cases is likely far higher. Experts warn that, in some states where infections are spiking, swelling numbers of coronavirus patients could soon swamp health care systems. As the virus surges across the country, it continues to rack the economy, as businesses struggle and each week more than a million workers file new claims for unemployment, adding to the double-digit jobless rate.

Fortunately, both science and hard-won experience in combating COVID-19 indicate that we could greatly slow its spread, allowing us to revive the economy and open schools safely, if almost everyone took simple measures that would sharply reduce transmission. One of these is wearing a mask in public areas where people come into close proximity. According to top health officials, near-universal compliance could bring the pandemic under control within a matter of weeks.

Most Americans support wearing masks, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE has declared that doing so is patriotic. A majority of states have mandated mask-wearing in certain public spaces, as have many cities and counties in states without mandates. Major retailers like Walmart now require masks in their stores. Even Republican governors who refuse to impose a mask mandate urge residents to wear them.

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Yet, a vocal minority of Americans passionately object to such directives, contending that they infringe on citizens’ freedom. A number of state and local leaders evidently share this view. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has asserted that “[y]ou can’t pick and choose what freedoms you are going to give people.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has gone so far as to sue the mayor and city council of Atlanta to block their local mandate. 

In order to evaluate the validity of such resistance to mask mandates, it is important to see that these opponents are taking a moral stance, holding that mask orders are unjust restrictions on individual freedom. In their eyes, the government is not morally justified in requiring people to wear face coverings in public places. So, are such mandates unjust? 

A basic principle of our democracy is that the government should respect individual freedom. Indeed, it is an entrenched political norm in our system that a citizen should be free to do whatever he or she wants in living their life. Of course, our individual freedom is not absolute but conditional. We can’t do just anything we want. Another bedrock principle is that the government, in certain circumstances, has a right – if not a duty – to limit individual freedom. This happens, for example, when governments, as they must, compel us to pay taxes, refrain from violence and otherwise obey the law. Virtually everyone accepts the need for TSA inspections and restrictions at airports, believing that the government has a duty to ensure our safety when we fly. It is beyond dispute that governments’ acting to fulfill the purposes for which government exists necessitates curtailing individual freedom.

Thus, in judging whether mask mandates are morally warranted constraints on individual freedom, we have to apply what might be called “the principle of conditional freedom”: Governments must not restrict citizens’ freedom to do what they want — unless there are compelling moral reasons justifying government restrictions.

In assessing the “anti-mask” position, then, the critical question is: Do governments have compelling moral reasons, as this devastating pandemic worsens, to require people to wear masks in public? We know that mask-wearing can potentially save thousands of lives, that it can protect the health of millions who have not been infected, that it can allow businesses and schools to reopen, and that it can help secure the right of citizens to a reasonable expectation of safety in public places. 

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That mask mandates, which do increase the use of masks, produce immeasurable benefits to citizens – and the country – is a very strong moral reason for instituting such mandates. (The benefits of near-complete compliance would be exponentially greater than the level of benefits achieved by voluntary compliance by a majority of citizens.) It is a compelling moral reason if there are not strong moral reasons against such mandates. Are there such anti-mandate reasons?        

It is clear that the social benefits of mandates are immense. What about the social costs? Basically, the costs are the inconveniences – relating to comfort, breathing, speaking and eating – connected with wearing a mask when one leaves home. These inconveniences are real, and they are annoying. Still, most Americans have accepted them as a small price to pay in aiding the country’s “war” against COVID-19. The fact is, there is no comparison: The aggregate social benefits of mask mandates vastly outweigh the social costs. 

Do mask mandates violate any individual rights? First, there is no specific legal right not to be forced to wear a mask in public. Moreover, a mask mandate does not contravene any of the rights enunciated in the Bill of Rights, nor does it infringe on any human rights set forth in various international conventions.

Given that the social benefits of mask-wearing astronomically exceed the social costs, and given that mask mandates do not violate any individual rights, it follows that mask mandates are morally justified. Governments are entitled to impose them.

More than that, government officials have a primary duty to protect the lives, health and rights of citizens. Since the pandemic poses a dire threat to public health and the economy, and since mask mandates are morally justified in these circumstances, the conclusion is that our leaders have an urgent duty to require people to wear masks in public places where there is a serious risk of transmitting the virus. In fact, public officials who have the power to issue such mandates are derelict in their duty as public servants if they don’t mandate mask-wearing in public.

Dana Radcliffe teaches ethics at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs. Martin Dobelle, an alumnus of the Maxwell School, is a social impact investor and managing partner of Balboa Capital Group.