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Freedom from masks

The Freedom Not to Wear a Mask


“Put on your mask, Dude.” That was said to me in an office building amid peak lockdown. “Where’s your mask?” was a question angrily posed to me by a sour-faced shopper in the parking lot of a Whole Foods in Washington, DC around the same time.

At another Whole Foods in nearby Bethesda, a rather self-regarding customer (redundancy?) let me know that “in Bethesda, we wear masks.” Close friends lectured me on the importance of wearing masks while scoffing at my surely knuckle-dragging disdain for the cloth. For a brief time in the summer of 2020, American Airlines banned me for removing it too much during a flight.

So many more anecdotes like this could be mentioned, and there’s a strong desire to talk about them. Loudly. There’s also a yearning to gloat around those who thought me doltish for rejecting the alarmism that led to so many so obediently masking up in 2020 and beyond.

Why now? The answer is simple. Like so many people, I’ve read New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’s summary of a recent study on the effectiveness of masks by Cochrane, which Stephens describes as the “gold standard for its reviews of health care data.” So what did the Cochrane study reveal about masks? Stephens cites an interview with the study’s lead author (epidemiologist Tom Jefferson) in which Jefferson concludes about masks “That there is just no evidence that they make any difference.” Do N-95 masks work in ways that the rectangular ones do not? According to Jefferson, it “Makes no difference – none of it.”

To read this is to be so tempted to once again gloat. The mask-wearing were and are such a supercilious lot. Shouldn’t they be mocked unceasingly for allowing their nail-biting alarmism to so thoroughly cloud their minds? The easy answer is yes. If the mask-religionists are forced to own up to how wrong they were, maybe they’ll learn to be more open-minded in the future? It all makes so much sense, except that it doesn’t.

It brings to mind a line from Northwestern professor Joseph Epstein’s book, Charm. Paraphrasing the author, “I’ve never lost an argument, but I’ve never won one either.” For those of us who properly rejected the mask hysteria, and who more importantly were live-and-let-live about how to respond to the virus, let’s be real.

We’re not going to win the argument with mask parishioners, and we won’t for the same reason that the brilliant Epstein has never won an argument: they’ll never admit just how wrong they were. There will always be “Yes, but” replies if they’re reasonably polite, and then if they’re not, the mask-compliant will remain the same vicious, sniveling people they were before the virus brightly magnified their worst qualities.

Worse, and as I argue in my 2021 book about the tragic political response to the virus, When Politicians Panicked, it’s important to stress that winning the arguments about lockdowns, masks, and survival rates from the virus is losing the war. Put another way, the best arguments against lockdowns and mask enforcement were never medical or statistical. That is so simply because freedom to live as we want is much more valuable than allegedly salutary health outcomes arrived at via force. Freedom is its own brilliant virtue, and it includes the right to do what we want even when doing what we want is thought to be detrimental to our individual health.

From there, it cannot be stressed enough that free people produce information. By doing what they want free people inform us through their actions. Applied to March of 2020 when the global political and expert class lost its collective mind, there was so very much the world didn’t know about a virus that was supposedly so powerful that it would cause mass-hospitalization absent lockdowns, and worse, death by the millions. All of which explains why freedom was most crucial to maintain at a time when it was trampled on. Think about it.

Precisely because the experts were making such grand pronunciations about the lethality of the virus, freedom was needed to test the hysteria. In other words, those who freely reject expert opinion when experts are predicting Armageddon are most crucial when people all around them are losing their heads, locking down, washing hands feverishly, and then sanitizing what has been washed. Figure that a wide range of approaches to a spreading virus – from total lockdown to spending every night in crowded bars – will produce the information that will test the beliefs of the expert class.

Except that in 2020 we didn’t get that. While well-run businesses adhere to the “one-size-fits-one” maxim, governments approach things with one-size-fits-all. Which was what the lockdown and mask-hysterical clamored for in 2020. Not willing to live-and-let-live, they had to control those who merely desired choice.

Those who desired choice, including the right to live as they always had were derided as “selfish.” Actually, it was the lockdown, mask and expert-reverential who were selfish for foisting their fears on the rest of us. If they wanted to stay home, and if they wanted to be double-masked when out given their deep belief in the effectiveness of masks, no one was keeping them from doing as they wished.

The simple truth is that the one-size-fits-all approach didn’t protect us from the virus as much as it blinded us to its reality; one that only could have been arrived at via freedom. We didn’t need medical studies, and the reality is that still we don’t need medical studies. What we needed and need is freedom. With the latter once again comes knowledge from different people doing different things, and all of us learning from their successes and failures.

This is yet again of crucial importance given the damning-to-masks conclusions in the Cochrane study. For the mask-disdainful to lead with the study’s truths is for them to imply that if the study had revealed masks as wildly effective, that mandates and other requirements would have made sense. No. Never. If doing something makes sense, or if it protects us from illness and death, no force is needed.

Let’s please keep this in mind now. Once again, the best arguments against mandates and lockdowns aren’t medical, nor will they be found in studies. Freedom is the best argument, and once we ditch freedom in favor of results-based cases, we set ourselves up for a hideous taking of our freedom in the future when the next pathogen invariably rears its lethal – or meek – head.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • John Tamny

    John Tamny, Senior Scholar at Brownstone Institute, is an economist and author. He is the editor of RealClearMarkets and Vice President at FreedomWorks.

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