Thomas Schlesinger: Do we have a right not to wear a mask?

Thomas Schlesinger: Do we have a right not to wear a mask?

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Thomas Schlesinger

Thomas Schlesinger

Government efforts to deal with the effect of the global COVID-19 pandemic has re-ignited an ongoing debate in American politics about the appropriate role of government in the lives of its citizens.

Compared to other Western democracies, U.S. politics places an emphasis on the importance of individual rights. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that we are forming this new government to ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.“

This emphasis on individual rights is particularly cherished by American conservatives; liberals tend to place greater emphasis on issues of equity and fairness within society.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and quickly spread around the world, governments felt forced to issue stay-at-home orders, effectively shutting down the nation’s economy.

Many people, but especially conservatives, felt this was a case of government overreach.

Yet in addition to this focus on individual rights, American democracy places an emphasis on the role of the government to “establish justice, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” (preamble to the Constitution). These are commonly referred to as the common good.

Thus, the preamble to the Constitution lays out the political fault-lines that continue to dominate politics in America today. It is the appropriate role of government to safeguard both individual freedom and the common good.

In the case of COVID-19, conservatives are especially sensitive to increased government involvement in personal lives while liberals feel that these governmental intrusions are justified by the threat posed to the common good.

Which side is right? One thing to keep in mind is that rights are not absolute. Individuals have no right to “falsely yell fire in a crowded theater because of the threat it poses to the larger group.” Furthermore “your right to swing your fist ends where the other fellow’s nose begins” (except in cases of self-defense).

In modern society, the U.S. government has created many laws to protect the safety and general welfare of society. Thus, individuals have a personal responsibility to respect the health and welfare of other citizens.

Speed limits obviously place limits on individual freedoms but are broadly accepted (although some of us stretch the limit).

People wanting to drive are required to have a driver’s license because of the potential threat to others posed by untrained drivers. The requirement to wear seatbelts does limit our freedom, but the small loss of freedom saves small freedom thousands of lives each year.

The list of the limitations on personal freedom goes on and on. While we have a rich tradition that cherishes individual rights, we have another tradition of personal responsibility to respect the health and safety of society at-large.

In the case of the COVID-19, both sides should realize that neither individual rights nor responsibilities are absolute in American democracy.

We must weigh our individual freedom against the responsibility we owe to society. In the case of face masks, there is a great deal of evidence that the wearing of face masks protects those around you from contracting the virus.

If we cannot control the spread of the virus through voluntary face masking and social distancing, eventually the government will be forced to step in and again shut down the economy – a fate that none of us want to see because the pain of economic shutdown far exceeds the mild inconvenience of wearing a mask.

In times of emergency, like war or a global pandemic, we must each of us make personal sacrifices to safeguard the greater good.

Perhaps social distancing and the wearing of face masks is not too much to ask in order to protect the lives of those around us.

Thomas Schlesinger lives in La Crosse, holds a Ph.D. in Political Science/Healthcare Policy, and worked for 20 years at the Gundersen Health System (now retired). He continues to teach at UW-La Crosse and Viterbo University as adjunct staff.


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