Why the libertarians are foolish about face masks

I went on a train this week. Incredible technology, I think it may catch on. Before boarding, I had to put on a mask. But, when I arrived at a London coffee shop, almost no one was wearing one. Then I went to a work event, and the majority of people there weren’t wearing one, either. 

Britain has a problem with masks. Earlier this month, only one-third of the public said they wore one when going out — less than half the rate in Germany, France, Italy and the US. Americans, in particular, are baffled by our unwillingness to cover our dentistry.

But online libertarians urge us to fight this creeping authoritarianism — bemoaning “face mask hell”, “the problem with mandatory face masks” and “the misguided mission to mask us all”. Is there a strange overlap between those who brag about the second world war and those unwilling to make the sacrifices that victory required?

One Conservative MP, Desmond Swayne, called face masks “a monstrous imposition” — thereby distinguishing them from blackface, which he once labelled “an entirely acceptable bit of fun”. He said “nothing would make [him] less likely to go shopping”. I would like to hear his wife’s version of events. Anti-maskers often refer to the cloth coverings as “face nappies” — a term that only illustrates the silliness of their argument, because I don’t know many parents who deem nappies an unnecessary measure.

But here’s the good news: the mask debate is ending. As of Friday, it’s mandatory to wear a mask in a shop in England. You can still go to a restaurant or a library without one, but the direction of travel is clear. 

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Indeed, far from demonstrating the libertarians’ strength, the debate has shown their weakness. According to a poll by Ipsos Mori, 86 per cent of the public said it was important to wear a mask when going shopping. Two-thirds think it should be compulsory. 

These are whopping majorities in a country where 52 per cent is a mandate for just about anything. In the US — where you don’t need a majority of the popular vote to wreak havoc — nearly three-quarters now support mandatory masks. Even President Donald Trump masked up eventually. I guess he didn’t ace those cognitive tests by chance. 

Wearing a mask is an act of trust. It does not protect you — it protects others, and their masks protect you. The effect is likely to be small, but it is a sign of shared endeavour, an essential part of getting through this crisis. Just as no one is an atheist in a foxhole, no one is a libertarian in a pandemic. 

Not many people were libertarian before Covid-19, either. Former prime minister David Cameron was never a small-state guy. Theresa May, whom no one would describe as a freedom-loving home secretary, gave a key speech called “The good that government can do”. Boris Johnson’s first acts as London mayor included banning alcohol consumption on the Tube; as prime minister he praises Franklin D. Roosevelt. Neither Vote Leave nor Vote Trump were libertarian propositions. 

In most contexts, people prefer a functioning society to an individualistic one. The British public backs high standards on food and higher taxes. The online libertarians are as out of touch as any Davos power breakfast. 

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Mr Cameron, Mrs May and Mr Johnson lacked the courage to follow through. We need to pay more taxes to fix public services and the deficit. We need to eat less meat and dairy, and to take fewer flights. Most people will accept these curbs on their individual freedom as long as they are a collective effort. We just don’t want to be the only chump wearing a mask, or the only one giving up their mini-break in Mallorca. 

The reason Britons were so slow to adopt masks was simple: government and scientists steered the other way. Our leaders need to lead. If anyone doubts the benefit of collective endeavour, suggest they board a train.


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