Paul Krugman wants to know how many of their fellow Americans Republicans are willing to kill in order to “own the libs.” In the wake of actions by Governors in Texas and Mississippi–essentially eliminating anti-COVID requirements– it’s a fair question.
Krugman also points out–graphically–why mask edicts are not an abrogation of American freedom.
Relieving yourself in public is illegal in every state. I assume that few readers are surprised to hear this; I also assume that many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this distasteful subject. But bear with me: There’s a moral here, and it’s one that has disturbing implications for our nation’s future.
Although we take these restrictions for granted, they can sometimes be inconvenient, as anyone out and about after having had too many cups of coffee can attest. But the inconvenience is trivial, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.
As Krugman goes on to point out, the dangerous posturing by self-described defenders of “liberty” is the essence of identity politics. Although Republicans politicians like to accuse Democrats of playing that game, they limit the definition of “identity” to issues of race and religion–it’s their way of reminding their White Supremicist base that Democrats represent a citizenry that includes “those people.”
What is motivating this rush to unmask isn’t economics–Krugman points out that the costs of mask-wearing are trivial, and that controlling externalities–taking into account costs being imposed on others–is Econ 101. As he says, “if potentially exposing those you meet to a deadly disease isn’t an “externality,” I don’t know what is.”
Of course, we know what’s actually going on here: politics. Refusing to wear a mask has become a badge of political identity, a barefaced declaration that you reject liberal values like civic responsibility and belief in science. (Those didn’t used to be liberal values, but that’s what they are in America 2021.)
This medical version of identity politics seems to trump everything, up to and including belief in the sacred rights of property owners. When organizers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks — not as a matter of policy, but simply to abide by the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting — they were met by boos and cries of “Freedom!” Do people shriek about rights when they see a shop sign declaring, “No shoes, no shirt, no service”?
But arguably we shouldn’t be surprised. These days conservatives don’t seem to care about anything except identity politics, often expressed over the pettiest of issues.
There are plenty of problems with mischaracterizing mask wearing as a “freedom” issue, and one of those problems ties back into my constant rants about the country’s low levels of civic literacy.
The United States Constitution does not give anti-maskers the “liberty” they claim.
I will readily admit to being a hard-core civil libertarian. (I ran Indiana’s ACLU for six years and was routinely criticized when our affiliate sued to protect citizens’ rights to pursue their own moral or personal ends.) But as Krugman’s introductory paragraphs illustrate, and the ACLU has always acknowledged, government retains considerable authority to require or prohibit certain behaviors. We can’t urinate (or worse) in public, or run around our neighborhoods nude. We can be ticketed for failing to buckle our seatbelts. We can be prohibited from exposing others to the passive smoke emitted by our cigarettes. Governments not only have the right but the affirmative obligation to impose quarantines to protect public health, and they have done so historically to control the spread of diseases like smallpox.
I agree with Krugman that the anti-maskers are playing identity politics. I wonder if they realize that the identity they are claiming is “selfish and ignorant.”