Saturday

May 21st, 2022

Insight

Lifting of mask mandates poses a challenge for Libertarians

Tyler Cowen

By Tyler Cowen Bloomberg View

Published June 10, 2021

Last month my home state of Virginia lifted its mask mandate, at least for fully vaccinated people and subject to some modest qualifications. My employer, a public university, followed suit.

At the same time, the stores and restaurants I frequent have continued their mandates without interruption. This poses a dilemma for libertarians who have opposed mask mandates as a tool of government coercion: Why are governmental bureaucracies, which are so often sluggish and risk-averse, now less cautious than the private sector?

The mystery deepens upon further examination.

If there is any part of the private sector that has pretty much abolished masks, it is restaurants. Usually a sign requiring masks is posted at the entrance, but with exceptions for people who are drinking and eating. Well, these are restaurants. That's why people go to them. Customers are now more likely to order a drink right away, if only so they can take off their masks. They stay off for the duration of the meal. Even after everyone is done eating, the masks stay off and the conversation continues. Most people put their masks on again only as they are leaving the restaurant - a nonsensical combination of behaviors.

U.S. restaurants recently re-attained their pre-pandemic activity levels. So customers don't seem bothered by these new arrangements, nor have I seen any angry columns or Twitter threads about them. Instead, people seem quite comfortable with the idea of essentially maskless restaurants. And since only about 40% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, a typical crowded restaurant almost certainly contains unvaccinated people.

My local shopping mall, hardware store and supermarket are not following suit with their own lax-mask policies, even though people in those settings are probably talking less and pushing less of their air around the room. Their mask mandates seem to be universally followed, unless of course you go to the restaurants and coffee shops inside.

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The nature of the inconsistency is this: Many people would like to take fewer precautions. But everyone is reluctant to move first. This applies to businesses as well as individuals. Since being fully vaccinated, I have participated in some hugs and shaken a number of hands - but only after the other person made the first move.

Retail businesses are stuck in a kind of overly rigid equilibrium. Many of them may want to adopt the de facto mask practices of restaurants, but they are afraid to move first, out of fear of seeming uncaring and irresponsible. And so the private mask mandates continue. Yet if a business has a good excuse for weakening the mandate - namely the sale of food and drink - the pressure is off to do any real enforcement.

Many governments, in contrast, are not so worried about consumer reaction. People have to pay their taxes no matter what, and not all elected positions in local government are hotly contested. But there is something else going on here: I believe we are all - for better or worse - wishing someone would lead us to a new equilibrium with less mask-wearing. Thankfully, some state governments have taken on this responsibility.

Of course, these same arguments imply that government performed a useful service in encouraging and requiring mask-wearing initially, at least once it realized that masks are useful. In the early spring of 2020, many people (myself included) wanted to start wearing masks, but feared that doing so would signal that they had Covid. At the time, government mask mandates removed that fear and helped create a new and more cautious equilibrium.

On a related note: Have you noticed that private universities often have a stronger "woke" culture, and less free speech, than public universities? This fact is also somewhat of an embarrassment for many libertarians. Though libertarian-leaning, I am myself happy to be teaching at a public institution, with its stronger legal and normative free-speech protections.

Might the parallel run deeper here? Perhaps the currently enforced codes of wokeism at many universities and technology companies are like mask-wearing norms. Maybe people would be willing to relax more about these issues once someone gives the signal that it is OK to do so.

That would imply that extreme wokeism, like mask mandates, won't last long. More than just libertarians, perhaps, can take comfort in that.

(COMMENT, BELOW)

Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream."

Previously:
05/28/21 Why economics is failing us
04/19/21We need green energy. We don't need green jobs
04/14/21 Libertarianism isn't dead. It's just reinventing itself
04/05/21 What does the world need? More humans
02/10/21 If Biden goes big now, he may have to go small later
01/12/21 Covid improved how the world does science
12/07/20 How to make sure your complaint is heard
10/27/20 It's getting better and worse at the same time
09/14/20 How to be happy during a pandemic
09/04/20 Trump is winning the vaccine debate with public health experts
07/01/20 Why Americans are having an emotional reaction to masks
05/20/20 Covid-19 will expose the ghosts in the U.S. economy
05/07/20 Are aliens visiting us? US military seems to think so
05/06/20 America's reopening will depend on one thing --- trust
04/22/20 How the covid-19 recession is like World War II
04/15/20 America is returning to 1781
04/08/20 Covid-19 is is upending everything for status seekers
03/17/20 The coronavirus will usher in a new era of entertainment
01/28/20 Social Security isn't doomed for younger generations
01/08/20 Why 2020 is harder to predict than 2019 was
12/02/19 Equality is a mediocre goal so aim for progress
11/25/19 Inflation inequality creates winners and losers
11/09/19 OK kids. This boomer has had enough
10/20/19 Would you bet against Trump in 2020?
09/25/19 The right industrial policy for America
09/24/19 Harvard's legacies are nothing to be proud of
09/02/19 Yes, the Fed could still stop a recession
08/20/19 A trade deal with China wouldn't change much
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07/16/19 Internet 101 should be a required class
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04/09/18: The missing key to grasping why American politics seems to have become more polarized, with no apparent end in sight
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