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.

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 blizard 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.”

See Also

I confess, I don’t wear masks unless I have to. They are uncomfortable, they make me dizzy, 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 government overreach, 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 the coherence behind much of the argumentation I’ve been hearing in pseudo-conservative circles (including lengthy discussions I’ve engaged in with people who consider themselves to be conservative). Specifically, here are eight questions that have been occurring to me, and which no one has been able to answer.

  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 the 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.)
  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 the increase in options and the 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), 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 helmits: 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.)
  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 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?
Scroll To Top