Family & Community

Masks, vaccines: It’s about who decides

August 11, 2021

Trent England

There is a basic asymmetry between the political right and left in America, made evident in debates about COVID policies. Should we mandate masks? What about vaccines? And who should decide? Debates on these issues are muddied because neither side really understands the other.

For progressives, politics is about power: who should have it, and what can be done with it. For conservatives, politics is about rights: what are they, and how to protect them.

Consider how this plays out in mask debates. The first question for a progressive is, Who knows best? Finding that person or institution answers the question of who should have power. Perhaps it’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, or former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, or the Centers for Disease Control. Then the question is, what can we do—that is, what can we mandate and how can we enforce it?

When Fauci reversed course last year and said masks could be helpful, the only question for progressives was how to force people to wear masks. And as research shows that vaccines significantly reduce the risk of death from COVID, and lessen the risk of getting the virus or passing it on, to a progressive this means vaccines should be mandatory.

Conservatives make different assumptions and ask different questions. Just because something is a good idea, even a really good idea, does not—to a conservative—mean that I should force you to do it. There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the most important: I might be wrong. I especially might be wrong about what’s the best thing for you. We also might discover an even better idea if we don’t force everybody to do the same thing. And people are more likely to act like adults—to be responsible for their own actions—if we let them make their own choices.

As a conservative, the question about whether I should wear a mask or get vaccinated is primarily personal. Once answered, the assumption is that my answer is for me—not for me to impose upon you.

This is where the dialog between the right and left breaks down. Progressives assume that good choices should be mandatory. When conservatives oppose mandates, progressives accuse them of being against masks or vaccines. Sometimes conservatives take the bait, arguing about how well masks work or the possible side effects of vaccines. The real issue for conservatives is to avoid pushing people around.

Progressives sometimes talk as if children cannot wear masks if masks are not mandatory. How silly. Children in Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma are free to wear masks, as are adults. Conservative leaders, and their voters, simply oppose forcing everyone to do it.

The response from progressives, of course, is that COVID is dangerous. That is far from a conversation-ending fact. Many things in life are dangerous, and our power to stop COVID even with draconian policies is doubtful. A conservative sees costs and benefits, and weighs the cost to freedom (not to mention livelihoods and learning) heavily against speculative benefits.

A final thought: tribalism is always dangerous. Civil society is only possible if people are willing to be civil to those with whom they disagree, which requires giving people the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions and remembering what mother said: two wrongs do not make a right.