Wearing Masks Is Good. But Mask Mandates Backfire

Steve Horwitz and Don Boudreaux recently joined forces for an excellent op-ed on mask mandates. They make some excellent points, including one highly relevant to the debate over police reform:

“By creating more opportunities for encounters between law enforcement and the citizenry, mask mandates create yet one more way for authorities to harass the relatively powerless. We’ve already seen that mandates are disproportionately enforced against people and communities of color.”

They also make solid points about bottom-up social norms versus top-down mandates. The whole piece is worth reading. But many people don’t seem to realize that there are effective ways to encourage good behavior without mandating it. Governance doesn’t always require government. In many case, governance is more effective without government. Wearing masks in public when there is a pandemic on is one of those things.

The alternative to mandates is social pressure. Don’t patronize stores that don’t enforce mask requirements, and let them now why. Give good publicity and your business to stores that do require masks. Don’t socialize in person with anti-maskers or let them into your home, and let them know why. Anti-maskers are the butts of jokes all over tv and the Internet. Let’s keep all that up.

The trouble is that social norms have shortcomings. They aren’t perfect, which is why some people favor mandates in addition to social norm enforcement.

After all, some people value their anti-masker in-group identity more than they value the approval of their friends, family, and community. Other people are just thoughtless of others. That does not mean, therefore mandates. It’s not as though such people are respecting mandates anyway.

Another important point is to think about mandates at the margin, the way an economist does. What additional impact would a mandate, on top of what people are already doing? How does this compare to the additional costs a mandate would impose, such as more police encounters?

Most people who wear masks in public will do so with or without a mandate. I don’t even know if my city has a mandate, and I don’t care. I wear a mask in public because I don’t want myself or anyone I care about to get sick. Most people are the same way. And it’s not like mandates convince anti-maskers see the error of their ways. They’re digging in. Mandates have near-zero marginal impact.

Finally, there is what Harold Demsetz called the Nirvana Fallacy—comparing the real world against a perfect theoretical model. With masks, the relevant comparison is not social pressure versus mandates as we *would like* them to work. It is social pressure versus mandates as they *actually do* work. Compare real with real, not real with ideal. If the only feasible choices are between bad and worse, choose bad. And let’s help people to be better.

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