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 contrary 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 manifests itself 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, masks are therefore fundamentally unamerican, opposed to his interpretation of our nation’s charter document.
For others I have spoken with, 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 or California. The editor of First Things even had a meltdown while declaring that 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. A large consensus among the people I have interviewed seems to be that even if COVID-19 was a deadly virus, and even if masks were proved to prevent millions of deaths, their mandatory enforcement would still be unjust on a priori grounds. 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: “Let me get this clear. So even if it could be shown, hypothetically, that masks prevent millions of deaths, you would still be against their enforcement, as a matter of 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?”
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:
- We shouldn’t have to wear masks because masks don’t work;
- 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, the role of the state, civil disobedience, and what it means to be conservative.
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. Moreover, 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 recurring questions that keep coming up for me, but which no one has yet been able to answer. 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 fifteen questions:
Question #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?
Question #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”)? Isn’t this inconsistent?
Question #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 hallmarks of modern liberalism. [UPDATE: since writing the present post I had an opportunity to further contrast leftist and conservative views of freedom, and to explore how modern-day American conservatives have sucumbed to the former. See my article, “Paine-fully Conservative? Remembering ‘Rights of Man’ and the Original Left-Right Divide.“]
Question #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 falls short of being truly free. Another way of putting this is to say that true freedom is that which enables an organism (whether an individual or a community) to flourish. If we adopt this classical understanding of freedom, then how and why is enforced mask-wearing a threat to freedom?
Question #5. If we assume the classical idea of freedom (see question #4), then would it follow that if this were a truly deadly pandemic, and if enforced public safety measures really could save millions of lives, that enforced public safety measures would be justified?
Question #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 ideas of freedom discussed in Question #4, personal A has greater freedom.)
Question #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?
Question #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?”)? That is to say, 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? If so, then isn’t the appeal to science mere posturing? 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 did 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. To learn more about Burke’s wisdom, click here.)
Question #9. Or is it the case that because masks don’t work and because they are not scientifically defensible, that their mandatory enforcement is therefore tyrannical and a grounds for civil disobedience? If so, then how would one answer the counter-arguments to this position posed by Brad Littlejohn in his “Letter to a Christian Protestor” (part of which is shared below)?
“…the word ‘tyranny’ has been quick to your lips and quick to the lips of many in our nation in recent months. So much so that I have to pinch myself from time to time to remind myself that we are talking about masks. Anyone would think that at stake were laws requiring all doctors to perform abortions, or laws requiring every citizen to pay a ruinous 50% property tax. Prima facie, it is hard to see how something as trivial as a face covering in a time of pandemic could rise to the level where we were discussing the proper forms of extra-legal redress for tyranny….
Only if the private judgment has some kind of divine revelation or incontrovertible reason on its side could it override the public judgment of law. In other words, it’s not enough to think the law is bad. It might be enough to justify quiet disobedience where that will not rock the boat or cause offense (as noted above). But public disobedience—thumbing your nose at the law or—let’s be frank—giving it the middle finger? That requires something much more. It requires genuine tyranny: an injustice that strikes at the very foundations of the society and inflicts grievous harm. Otherwise, there would be no sense trying to live in a society of laws at all. A society that said, “Here are the laws: only obey them as long as you agree with them” wouldn’t last two days.”
Question #10. This next question applies to those who argue that mandatory mask-wearing, when applied to worship services, is a violation of religious liberty since the government (according to this line of reasoning) does not have authority over the Church. My question is why, in every other area of civil law (zoning regulations, plumbing codes, maximum occupancy requirements, sexual abuse laws, fire safety, contract law, electrical codes, etc.), do we routinely accept the state’s authority over the churches but then, when it comes to COVID-19 regulations, suddenly we change our principles and argue that government does not have authority over the church? Here it may be helpful to clarify exactly what it would mean if the jurisdiction of government really did not extend over churches. In his article, “Our Lives or Our Freedoms: The Fear of Tyranny in a Time of Pandemic” Brad Littlejohn pointed out that such a position would entail that when the cathedral of Notre-Dame was burning in Paris then firefighters would not have had the authority to cancel services while they fought the fire. Or again, in situations where the church is a crime scene, police would have no authority to suspend services to investigate and dust for fingerprints. Moreover, if the government really did have zero authority over places of worship, then why do pastors routinely submit to plumbing codes, contract law, zoning regulations, fire safety codes, and so forth? And do we really want to live in a nation where places of worship are immune to criminal law? I don’t think so! In reality Christians throughout history have recognized that the jurisdiction of the state does indeed extend over churches. So my question is simply why, in the case of COVID-19, are conservatives drawing an arbitrary exception to this long-established principle?
Question #11: The ancients recognized the existence of societies structured around the fulfilment of unbridled desires, but they looked upon such communities as pre-civilized. One thinks of pre-monarchical Israel where “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25), or the society of the Cyclopes, which Homer describes by saying, that they “have no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is a lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody gives a jot for his neighbors.” The ancients saw such societies as falling short of liberty, for within a truly free society, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally and protected through proper order. True freedom was seen as the organic correlate of order, while disorder was always a prelude to bondage, whether the bondage of anarchy, totalitarianism, enslavement, or the bondage of simple disorder. Consequently, as we saw in question #4, the classical and Christian understanding of liberty held that freedom is the ability to pursue the telos appropriate to an organism. If this is the case then a freedom-preserving local government may indeed be justified in making laws that work towards communal flourishing, even when those laws impact churches (as they in fact do when expecting churches to abide by contract law, fire safety laws, electrical and plumbing codes, civil and criminal law, etc.) The problem in the present situation is not that government doesn’t have authority to legislate in ways that impact churches, but that government is basing its decisions on a restricted criteria of human flourishing – a criteria where health (and more particularly not getting COVID-19) trumps all other considerations, including considerations that play into our spiritual and social wellbeing. This is to be expected of an atheistic government that has long ceased to recognize the spiritual realm as a relevant factor to flourishing. This being the case, my question is this: could it be that in the current climate of ideology and polemicism, that conservatives are recognizing the problem of government misusing its authority over the churches through the aforementioned truncated criteria for flourishing, but then mistakenly confuse this as an objection to the government having authority over the church? To state this question more simply: could it be that objections about government misusing its authority over the church is being confused as an objection to government having any authority over the church at all? Think about this in terms of a father and child: if a father is a bad father, he still has authority over his child, but he is misusing that authority. It would be rash to observe an abusive father and then claim that fathers have no authority over their children. Similarly, is it a rash non sequitur to observe the state misusing its authority over the church and then conclude that the state has zero authority over the church?
Question #12. 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. For example, the elected officials on the Coeur d’Alene city counsel voted to put mask regulations in place. 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 on the basis of the constitution. How is this consistent with the conservative tradition of defending local autonomy?
Question #13. How are state-enforced mask mandates unconstitutional when the constitution, at least as originally conceived, only limited the power of the federal government and not the states? (See my earlier discussion of the Constitution and states’ rights.)
Question #14. 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.)
Question #15. One popular anti-mask polemic goes like this: there is no point in using masks and distancing to try to avoid death, especially at church, because if God wants you to die then you will anyway; conversely, if it is not yet your time to die, then no pandemic however deadly will be able to touch you. My question is why, if the premises of this argument be accepted, do we wear seat belts when we drive? Why, in every other area of life, do we recognize that both God and the devil work through means?
UPDATE: since writing the above article, I attempted to attend a North Idaho mask-burning rally. This led to a deeper inquiry about the meaning of human rights in the context of COVID-era controversies. In the process, I discovered that both the left and the right are tending to assume a common vocabulary about human rights that is ideologically disconnected from classic conservative discourse on liberty. I have reported my findings at Salvo Magazine at in my article, “Rethinking Rights: Questioning Natural Rights With Edmund Burke.”