In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the surgeon general exhorted Americans to “STOP BUYING MASKS!” Public-health officials argued that only medical workers needed personal protective equipment, and besides, people could not be trusted to put masks on correctly.
A few weeks later, masks have become a symbol of civic responsibility, following new CDC guidelines encouraging their use. Politicians and journalists don them at press conferences, castigating their bald-faced colleagues. The surgeon general even posted a how-to guide for making masks out of T-shirts.
What explains the change? A large body of literature finds that surgical masks and respirators, while imperfect, reduce the spread of pathogens transmitted through droplets. An infected individual wearing a mask is less likely to shed the virus onto other people or surfaces, and even if droplets penetrate a mask, the viral load will be lower than it would have been otherwise, reducing the severity of an attendant infection. A 2003 study of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong found that medical workers who wore masks were significantly less likely to contract the virus. Another study found that even homemade masks are better than nothing. But public-health authorities downplayed the effectiveness of masks in order to preserve the supply for medical workers in greater need of personal protective equipment.
The belated guidelines are welcome. But for many on the political right, this initial “noble lie” reinforced a broader distrust of government. Bureaucrats’ willingness to obfuscate meant that individuals had to make reasoned decisions on their own rather than rely on government dictates. The mask imbroglio cast doubt on the claim that “experts” alone could address the pandemic and bolstered the case for a localized response.
Suddenly there’s a new trend: mask-skeptics on the political right. After Vice President Pence got flak for not covering his face on a visit to the Mayo Clinic, Trump’s base has come to see masks as a symbol of government overreach. Fox News host Laura Ingraham dedicated a segment to denouncing mask use: “They’ll say this whole mask thing is settled science just like they do with climate change. Of course, it’s not and they know it.” Ohio governor Mike DeWine, who initially mandated the use of masks in his state, rolled back the requirement in the face of public backlash, reasoning that “people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.” Some pundits have even argued that mask-wearing is a sign of “cowardice.”
The irony is that civil-libertarian objections to masks make draconian measures more likely. The more people refuse to wear masks, the greater the risks of reopening. Where mask-wearing has taken hold — in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, for example — life has proceeded in quasi-normalcy: Many businesses and schools are open, and people are free to socialize. The comparatively repressive East Asian democracies have retained more civil liberties than the U.S. thanks, in part, to the rational behavior of their citizens.
The efficacy of masks strengthens the anti-lockdown case. It is exactly the kind of spontaneous decision-making that often renders government intrusion needless and inefficient. The “invisible hand” of the free market depends on rational individuals acting in their self-interest. We’ve seen this phenomenon in jurisdictions that did not lock down but nonetheless saw sizable reductions in economic activity. People did not want to contract COVID-19 and took reasonable steps to minimize their risk.
But the anti-mask crowd now advocates eschewing one’s individual interest in favor of empty symbolic gestures — an example of the irrational behavior that statists use to argue against free markets. Conflating personal protective measures with government overreach all but guarantees that the latter will be necessary.