Due to our COVID-19 crisis, I have been at home a great deal lately, and I have spent hours watching the news and reading various newspapers. I have heard and seen the statements of many people, male and female, who have justified not wearing a mask because they have the “freedom” and “liberty” to not do so. They seriously proclaim that they have the “right” to take their own risks and the government has no power to tell them otherwise.
I have studied the law for most of my life, so in response I will throw a little political science/law at their position on this crucial issue. Long ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois stated:
When one becomes a member of society, he or she necessarily parts with some rights or privileges which as an individual not affected by his or her relations to others, he or she might retain. A body politic is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. This does not take away all private rights, but it does authorize the adoption of laws requiring each citizen to so conduct himself/herself so as not to injure another … . This is known as police power, which is the essence of government to act when it becomes necessary for the public good.
When we all lived in caves, trees, huts or as nomads, we could do what we wanted, when we wanted and at whatever risk we wanted to take. Whether those actions hurt others or even our families was only controlled by our own conscience. The consequences of those actions were felt only by our family or group of persons we lived with. If we lived, suffered or died, the “world” did not care.
Then we decided there were many benefits from living together. Instead of having to do everything in our lives, many people could split up the duties and become a cohesive, productive, strong and formidable society. But it only worked if people wanted to stay. If coming together caused greater risks and harm, people would simply leave, and the sovereign would cease to exist. Therefore, we all as citizens have an individual duty to not unnecessarily injure others and if necessary, the government can pass laws to force the citizens to comply. Society in fact cares if you live, suffer or die!
So far in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has appealed to that individual duty and not issued a mandatory, police power, order to wear masks during our COVID-19 crisis. He has appealed to our civic duty. Why? Ironically, the masks he wants us to wear do not protect ourselves (since we reserve the scarce N95 masks to our health care personnel) so going out in the world can still make you a risk taker!!! However, we know the coronavirus is mainly spread by droplets from our nose and mouth by talking, singing, yelling, coughing and sneezing. So, by each of us wearing a mask, we are protecting others from contracting COVID-19 and thus our society benefits in so many different ways.
By containing the spread, fewer will die or become severely ill, we will not overload our hospitals, not sicken and kill medical personnel trying to save lives. We all will not avoid commercial establishments for we will feel safe while saving/helping the economy, and almost everyone will be able to safely go to work, if necessary, to rebuild our economy. The public good and welfare will be able to thrive in so many ways.
When these people state their case for liberty and freedom, they have it backwards. They generally are free and able to do what they want in their lives, IF they FIRST fulfill their duty as a CITIZEN to not harm others. By simply wearing a mask when they are with people they do not live with and cannot stay physically distant from, then they can do what they want. That is “independent plus” by protecting everyone, but having the right to live one’s own life.
And by the way, if their risk of going out results in contracting the coronavirus, will they not expect the hospitals and medical personnel to be there ready to save their lives? But if no one wears masks, there may be no room, and the medical personnel may be exhausted. If everyone wears their masks, all will be ready and willing to save your life.
Ron Beal is a professor of law at Baylor University.