In some activist circles, refusal to wear a face mask has become a sign of defiance, an expression of one’s rebellious spirit, like riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
It should be the other way around. Wearing a mask is an expression of resistance to governmental authority. (Make it a Gadsden flag mask, to emphasize the point.)
In history and legend, an American community under threat from an outside danger turns to the skills and leadership of the rugged individualist. John Smith, John Stark, George Washington, U.S. Grant come immediately to mind.
This is the main theme of Western movies. The reluctant hero agrees to save the town, often at great sacrifice to himself.
The philosophy of the rugged individualist runs deep within American conservatism, which holds that government has no business protecting people from themselves. It’s why New Hampshire doesn’t mandate seat belt or motorcycle helmet use and embraces the motto: “Live free or die, death is not the worst of evils.”
It’s easy to forget that the community and the rugged individualist are two parts of the same philosophical tradition, and they answer each other. The rugged individualist is not a hermit. He needs the community and it needs him.
To be free from government controls, individuals have to be as self-sufficient as possible within their community. They work out their problems through community participation, good citizenship, and strong leadership. Personal responsibility, a coinage of the American founding, is an essential building block of a society with a limited, constrained government.
The Founders understood this and wrote about it often. As John Adams put it one of the many times he made the point, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”
Ronald Reagan made the same point in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican Convention.
“Together, let us make this a new beginning. Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the virtues handed down to us by our families; to have the courage to defend those values and virtues, and the the willingness to sacrifice for them.
“Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of voluntary service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative; a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation.”
Service, cooperation, community, sacrifice.
Reagan absorbed from the Founders the understanding that freedom from government constraints requires us to build voluntary associations through which we care for each other.
To praise doctors and nurses for their sacrifice in the face of a global pandemic is an empty gesture if not accompanied by some effort of one’s own to reduce the risk those doctors and nurses must face.
Sweden is given as an example New Hampshire should follow. It has not ordered a nationwide lockdown to deal with the coronavirus. The reason? Sweden enjoys high levels of trust and personal responsibility. (Its people are also very healthy.)
Large gatherings have been banned and sporting events canceled, but otherwise Swedes have voluntarily adopted behaviors that slow the spread of the disease.
That’s the way to have an open economy during a global pandemic. (Although, as The Wall Street Journal has reported, Sweden’s economy is hurting too.)
Granite Staters can speed the opening of the economy by doing three simple things. Wash hands, wear a mask, maintain personal distance. That will slow the spread faster than any government order. It will enable more businesses to open and stay open. It is done not to show obedience to the state, but to protect each other so there can be no justification for state controls.
Now, about those masks. They’re not like motorcycle helmets. Their point is to protect others in your community, not you.
Most people who get the coronavirus don’t get seriously ill. They spread it without knowing they have it. Although Swedes tend not to wear masks, there’s strong evidence that masks are effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus when people don’t even know they have it.
Several academics writing in The Atlantic last month examined clinical studies and real-life experiences to conclude that “if 80 percent of people wear masks that are 60 percent effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease.”
“Mask use in combination with physical distancing is even more powerful,” they wrote.
Wearing a mask is not a sign of complicity (there’s no mask order in New Hampshire). It’s a sign that you don’t need the state to tell you to care for your fellow citizens.
Individuals, acting in their own capacity without government orders, have the ability to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Isn’t that what a self-governing people ought to be doing?