Ever the technocrat, bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel — Joe Biden’s chief health-care adviser — now has coauthored a piece in the New York Times discussing how to force us all to wear masks. First, he supports laws requiring mask-wearing. From “Mask Wearing Needs to be Easy, Understood, and Expected”:
The most obvious path to universal masking is to pass laws and punish infractions. But enforcing legal edicts to wear masks in public can be difficult and costly, and amid widespread ambivalence can lead to backlash and even violence. So edicts are not a complete solution.
As experts in public health and human behavior, we propose a complementary approach: Make wearing a mask easy, understood and expected.
Notice how the writers soft-pedal their call for a legal mandate, but that is precisely what they advocate. They write that “edicts are not a complete solution,” meaning they are part of what should be done. And they write that other “complementary” approaches should also be engaged — in other words, in addition to legal compulsion.
The rest of the column focuses on technocratic efforts to manufacture social “norms” that would seek to shame us all — at the risk of social excommunication — to accept universal mask-wearing. I think that would be unwise.
I am all for wearing masks where appropriate and have no objection to “leadership by example” efforts by admired people. But constructing a “norm” through social manipulation could unleash a form of unreasonable fear of the kind we saw the other day in a Staten Island grocery, where people howled and screamed in panic at an unmasked shopper, driving her out of the store. That behavior was far more alarming and socially unhealthy than the presence of woman who thoughtlessly didn’t wear a mask.
Also, while the issue is mentioned, the authors skip over the science that mask- wearing outside is unnecessary if proper social distancing is followed. This is a problem with technocrats. They tend to approach issues with cudgels instead of scalpels.
Give Americans accurate information, and most of us will do the right thing voluntarily. But as an individualistic culture, we get our backs up when “the experts” attempt to dictate individual behavior, whether through social or legal compulsion. Deploying legal and/or social coercion to induce universal mask-wearing is likely to cause more popular resistance, not less.