10 Questions About Masks and Conservative Values

Living on the border between Idaho (one of the most conservative states) and Washington (one of the most liberal states), it is fascinating to watch the tension. Sometimes it feels like these are two different countries, with different values and different worldviews. This tension plays itself out on ground level since there is a great deal of cross-over in the towns around the border. One of the ways this tension has begun playing itself out is over the issue of masks.

Just over the Washington border in Spokane, masks have been accepted as a way of life, a necessary trade-off for re-opening society. By contrast, in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, most of my friends refuse to where masks on a matter of principle. This was illustrated when I walked into a friend’s shop last week wearing a mask, and the first thing he said was, “Take that thing off right now!”

Earlier this week another friend told me that he thought mask-wearing is probably prudent, but he still would not wear a mask since they had become associated with liberalism, with the left-wing values of states like Washington and California. Still another person recently told me that the Declaration’s preamble recognizes a “right to happiness,” and because masks make him feel unhappy, therefore they are fundamentally unamerican, opposed to his interpretation of our nation’s charter document.

For still others, mandatory-mask wearing has become the final straw that legitimizes our civil disobedience. This is the position that California pastor Andrew Sandlin took in a recent article.

Just last week masks were declared mandatory throughout Kootenai County Idaho where we live. Although technically the law only applies for situations where social distancing is impossible, a blizzard of billboards and signs have gone up telling citizens that it is against the law to go mask-less.

Significantly, a number of people have declared they will go to jail rather than wear a mask. Masks have become a hill to die on, as their mandatory enforcement is seen as a symbol of a far deeper malaise. Some fear that the new laws are a Trojan horse to make Idaho become more like Washington. For others, notably the editor of First Things, masks are a sign of our willingness to succumb to fear and cowardice. For other people (even conservatives, ironically) masks have become the latest battle for “a right to my own body.”

For some of the people I have spoken with, the-right-to-not-be-told-what-to-do has such axiomatic force that the question of whether masks actually work, or whether they save lives, recedes into the background as irrelevant. Here’s a typical conversation that I’ve got into more than once:

Friend: “This whole mask thing is driving me crazy! This is not about public health, you know, because masks don’t actually work. This is about them wanting to control us.”

Robin: “Well, if it could be shown that masks did work to prevent hundreds of deaths, would you still be against them?”

Friend: “Yes, because I really don’t care if my not wearing a mask causes my neighbor’s grandmother to die from COVID-19. I really don’t give a f….”

Robin: “Does that mean that even if it could be shown, hypothetically, that masks prevent millions of deaths, you would still be against them on principle?”

Friend: “Yes, because the end doesn’t justify the means. It is wrong for government to interfere with how we live our lives. We cannot justify evil merely because good may come from it.”

Robin: “I see. So from an ethical and political perspective, the question of whether masks actually work is irrelevant?”

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Friend: “Yes.”

Even the above conversation was not the strangest. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when a couple people who told me that masks didn’t t work, turned around and also told me that we shouldn’t wear masks precisely because they work, since widespread COVID-19 infection is a desirable means to heard immunity. Without apparently perceiving the contradiction, they wanted to maintain that both of the following statements were true at the same time:

  1. We shouldn’t have to wear masks, because masks don’t work;
  2. We shouldn’t have to wear masks because masks do work, and will thus slow down herd immunity

Above and beyond the issue of logical consistency, conversations like these raise a number of important questions about freedom, political theory, and the role of the state.

Before getting into my specific questions, let me lay my cards on the table and confess that I generally have not been wearing masks unless I have to. They are uncomfortable, they make me dizzy, they fog up my glasses, and I get a number of different side-effects from wearing them. Also, I have been working through a painful recovery from aspiration pneumonia, and masks seem to exacerbate my condition. Also, I share the concern that any time we get accustomed to too much government supervision, especially in the name of public safety, it becomes a little easier to surrender liberties like a frog in a frying pan. So my natural sympathies are with the anti-mask crowd. At the same time, however, I have been having a hard time understanding how opposition to masks has anything to do with political conservatism. Yet many of my friends who consider themselves to be conservative are insisting that their opposition to masks is rooted in conservative values.

That, then, is the context to the ten recurring questions that keep coming up, but which no one has been able to answer for me. Please note, however, that I am asking these questions from the standpoint of being conservative. This point is worth mentioning since merely asking these questions has aroused suspicion among some of my family and friends that I have gone over to the “dark side,” that I have surrendered my critical thinking to CNN. So here are my ten questions:

  1. Why is it that the same “conservatives” who are now against mandatory mask-wearing and track-and-trace, were saying earlier in the year that both of these were the way forward for getting the economy re-functioning?
  2. Many “conservatives” are arguing that enforced mask-wearing for the sake of protecting other peoples’ health is a violation of freedom. As P. Andrew Sandlin put it when expressing the growing mood, “I am responsible for my own health, not everybody else’s.” But if these people really believe that, from the state’s perspective, each one of us is only responsible for our own health, then how can they consistently advocate mandatory quarantine for people who have tested positive with COVID-19 (as Sandlin himself does when, later in his article, he concedes that “COVID-positive individuals should be quarantined”)?
  3. When “conservatives” see enforced mask-wearing as a violation of liberty, are they unwittingly taking for granted the modern liberal notion of freedom (i.e., freedom = the enlargement of choices available to the individual) that they are quick to repudiate in other contexts? This question gets to the heart of why I’m putting “conservative” in quotation marks, since a merely procedural freedom disconnected from questions of teleology, remains one of the halmarks of modern liberalism.)
  4. In the historic conservative understanding of freedom (rooted in classical thought and developed in a rich Christian literature over hundreds of years) freedom is the ability to pursue the telos appropriate to an organism, whether an individual or a community. In this understanding, a tree that is uprooted is not truly free to realize its proper end, just as a community without any laws is hindered from realizing its proper end, and therefore would fall short of being truly free. If we adopt this classical understanding of freedom, then how and why is enforced mask-wearing a threat to freedom?
  5. If we assume the classical understanding of freedom (see previous question), and if we also assume that it could somehow be shown that enforced mask-wearing prevents millions of deaths, then would it follow that not to enforce mask-wearing is a threat to freedom? (Both these assumptions would need to be established by argument, so this question is hypothetical to serve the useful function of teasing out principles.)
  6. In the following scenario, who has greater freedom between Person A and Person B. Person A is a man who thinks he might have COVID-19 and is submitting to a quarantine until his results come back. Person B is a man who has tested positive for COVID-19 but moves about town anyway, potentially infecting others. (Hint: in the type of modern liberalism increasingly assumed pseudo-conservatives, where freedom simply means an increase of options and a decrease in restraint, person B has greater freedom. But in the context of classical Christian discussions of freedom, personal A has greater freedom.)
  7. When conservatives say that enforced mask-wearing takes away our “basic rights” and “our fundamental liberties,” are they referring to natural rights that are true at all times and all places, or positive rights that have emerged under our contingent legal framework?
  8. Is it logical for conservatives to root their opposition to mandatory mask-wearing on a priori grounds (i.e., natural rights, the God-given boundaries of government, procedural notions of freedom discussed in question 3), but then make a posteriori arguments against masks (i.e., “you know, don’t you, that there haven’t been any randomized, controlled, double-blind studies proving that masks even work?”)? I mean, if it really were the case that mandatory mask-wearing is excluded on the basis of a priori principles concerning justice, liberty, human rights, and the role of the state (which is what I’m hearing people say), then would it even matter if enforced mask-wearing does or does not work? If, hypothetically speaking, mandatory mask-wearing could save millions of people’s lives, wouldn’t it still be wrong if it violates a priori principles of justice? A comparative example is something like seat belts or motorcycle helmets: if it could be established prior to experience that government has no authority to legislate in the area of seat belts and helmets, then from a political perspective it would be irrelevant if seat belts and motor cycle helmets actually work to save lives. (Fun fact: Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, believed that justice arose out of tradition and not from the realm of a priori metaphysics. Political wisdom is about prudence, and prudential reasoning always contains an empirical element.)
  9. In most other issues, conservatives tend towards the values of localism, as they defend the rights of villages, counties, and states to make their own laws. Part of being conservative is a deep distrust of top-down policies that use federal regulations to restrict local autonomy. In the case of mask-wearing mandates, these have all emerged from cities, counties, and states that have used their own local governments to make policies. Yet conservatives I have spoken to have been saying these local governments don’t have any right to make such laws, that it goes against our democracy, and that such mandates are unconstitutional. Some would even like to see the Executive Branch nullify these local laws. How is this consistent with the conservative tradition of defending local autonomy?
  10. In other contexts, conservatives have been more than willing to surrender liberties for the sake of public safety. The anti-terror legislation in the Bush years is an example. When conservatives supported body scanners at airports that enable people to view you naked, the argument was that this was a necessary trade-off for a functioning society. Why are the same conservatives repudiating this same political logic when it comes to masks? (Note that I am not saying I agree with the argument behind the anti-terror legislation, only that I am puzzled by the inconsistency.)
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