Libertarians Can Support Mask Mandates Without Violating their Philosophy

Photo by Patrick Whalen, featuring Justus Kellond.

Rand Paul, whose father was a member of the Libertarian party, is often described as a Libertarian-leaning Republican. In 2018, Paul gave a talk at Duke University published as “How Libertarian Philosophy Can Connect Divided Partisans.” For Paul, libertarianism is about protecting liberty and preventing government overreach in the lives of citizens. When asked how he “can be against government intrusion into private lives yet oppose a woman’s right to an abortion,” Paul described the libertarian philosophy as one that is typically against aggression and said that “If you think the baby is not a person, do what you want. If you think it’s a person then Libertarians say the government has a role to stop it.” Why? Because the basic principle of libertarianism is this: Do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t harm others.

Fast forward to 2021, and Rand Paul has become one of the nation’s leading opponents to mask and vaccine mandates. In November of 2020, Paul moved a presentation he was giving to WKU students outdoors instead of abiding by the university’s COVID-19 masking policy, calling it “ridiculous.” Paul said “each individual should get to make their choice on what their risks are,” and that, “For young people under age 25, the death rate from the coronavirus is one in a million.” In August, Paul released an op-ed expressing his aversion to mandates and other coronavirus policies from “petty tyrants and feckless bureaucrats.” He closed by calling readers to “stand together” and “choose freedom.” For Paul and others like him, mask mandates are deemed paternalistic, meaning they force people to do what the government considers best for them, and are in direct opposition to libertarian philosophy. However, is it possible that mask mandates are not totally paternalistic, but instead a blend of libertarian and paternal principles? 

The Libertarian Principle

John Stuart Mill, a classical liberal, is often noted as the father of Utilitarianism, and his essay, “On Liberty” has contributed to fundamental libertarian principles. Mill begins the essay by writing, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” He goes on to say that man should not be forced to do something “because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.” These sentences form the basis of libertarianism, and in many instances inform a simple and straightforward philosophy. It champions personal freedom and abhors any attempt to limit it because something is deemed “good” for an individual. Mill’s statement, though, creates an interesting problem in terms of mask mandates. On one hand, mask mandates compel individuals to do something because it would be beneficial for them to do so and because it would be “wise” or “right.” This is inherently paternalistic and goes against the second half of Mill’s principle. On the other hand, when individuals choose not to wear masks in public places during a global pandemic, they certainly put the health and safety of those around them at risk, which is the only time, according to Mill, that an individual should be compelled to do something. 

Paternalistic in Nature

Paternalism, in essence, is concerned with compelling the general public to do what the government deems best for them. It could also be thought of as something that coerces individuals into doing something good for them that they perhaps do not recognize as good on their own. Examples of paternalistic laws could be ones that require helmets while riding motorcycles, seatbelts while driving, or preventing swimming without a lifeguard on duty. 

Paternalism violates the second half of Mill’s principle and was a philosophy that he was adamantly against. Mill’s principle is not as simple as it seems at the outset, though, which is something that Gerald Dworkin discussed in his essay, “Paternalism,” long before the age of COVID-19. Dworkin writes that Mill’s principle is really two: one that deems individual protection and prevention of harm to others as a good reason for government or societal intervention, and another that asserts that the good of the individual is never a warrant for compulsion. Dworkin notes that Mill himself was not totally concrete in his opposition to paternalistic principles, though, as he favored things like an intervention to prevent someone from selling himself into slavery by his own will because it would limit the man’s liberty. It is easy to see, then, that even to Mill his principle was nuanced, and that it is important to consider the context of individual circumstances. 

Certainly, mask mandates are paternalistic in nature. In mandating the use of a mask in public places, the government essentially forces you to protect yourself from COVID-19, disregarding whether you would choose to do so on your own. Dworkin writes that when a motorcycle rider chooses to go without a helmet, it isn’t that he doesn’t care about his safety, but perhaps that he values his personal freedom more, or simply doesn’t think it is likely that he’ll become injured. Most people who wear masks voluntarily in public understand the benefits of doing so, while those who do not perhaps do not understand the benefit or deem personal freedom more important, which further shows how mask mandates, and feelings towards them, coincide with paternalism.

Though mask mandates are paternalistic in this sense (they force you to protect yourself), it isn’t entirely possible to be against them using libertarian principles as justification. Considering that the decision to not wear a mask can impact others around you, it is safe to say that libertarians can reasonably support mask mandates without violating their philosophy. After all, John Stuart Mill was a major proponent of Utilitarianism, which is all about the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. If everyone wore a mask, fewer people would fall ill, and the greatest amount of good would be created. 

Must a libertarian pick a side in an argument that tugs at both ends of their system? Not necessarily. According to Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their essay “Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron,” libertarian paternalists can “attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice.” While it could be hard to do this in relation to mask mandates, it is definitely possible to think of ways to incentivize mask-wearing while leaving choices open. In the essay, Sunstein and Thaler note that this is usually accomplished by leaving free choice available, but making the choice to avoid what the government deems as “the best choice” inconvenient. For instance, if libertarians were to adopt this approach, they could designate certain hours in stores and restaurants as mask-free hours. Those hours may be very early or near close, but nonetheless, they would be available to those who do not want to wear a mask. It could be tricky, but possible to leave options open.  

Is Rand Right?

It is evident that Rand Paul values personal freedom and dislikes paternalism as much as John Stuart Mill did. However, it is also apparent that Paul does, or has, valued the principle that you should do what you want so long as it doesn’t harm others, as evidenced in his 2018 statement on abortion. Given this, it is interesting that he has so staunchly opposed mask-wearing and mask mandates in general. 

With the rise in vaccination rates, though, the tide has started to turn on mask mandates. Since vaccinated individuals are much less likely to contract COVID-19 or to become seriously ill, it is up for debate whether those who are unmasked and unvaccinated really pose a risk to anyone but themselves. Undoubtedly, though, Paul is right about one thing––it is possible for libertarian philosophy to bring divided partisans together, especially if partisans and legislators unite to produce policies that protect individual freedom while encouraging practices that prevent harm to others. As we move forward in the discussion of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, this is important to remember. In politics, few issues are totally black or white, and keeping this in mind will produce policies that are more understanding of everyone’s concerns.  

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