Ever since Covid 19 surfaced last spring, there has been a fierce debate over whether people should wear masks. Some people, including virtually everyone in the government, have argued that masks inhibit the spread of the coronavirus. Others have maintained the contrary, or have maintained that it’s their own business as to whether they wear a mask or not.
Throughout the controversy, there have been a number of libertarians who have taken the anti-mask position. Some of them say that that’s the position that is consistent with the freedom principles of the libertarian philosophy.
Such libertarians are in error, however. The libertarian philosophy is neither anti-mask nor pro-mask. Libertarianism does not dictate how people should exercise their freedom. The philosophy simply holds that people should be free to decide this issue for themselves.
What about government edicts, orders, laws, and regulations requiring people to wear masks under various circumstances? That’s an entirely different matter, and it depends what those circumstances are.
If the federal government, for example, issues a regulation that requires people who enter federal buildings to wear a mask, there is no violation of libertarian principles. As the owner of its buildings, the federal government has the authority to run them in any reasonable way it deems fit.
What if a President Biden issues an edict requiring every private business in the country to require people who enter the business to wear a mask. Now we are talking about a grave violation of libertarian principles. In a genuinely free society, every business owner has the right to decide for himself whether to have a pro-mask or anti-mask policy for people entering onto its premises.
What happens if a privately owned business, say an airline or restaurant, establishes a requirement that all customers must wear masks? Does such a policy violate the rights of passengers who are anti-mask?
Of course not. The airline and the restaurant have the right to establish any policy they want. If customers don’t like it, they can choose not to fly that airline or eat at that restaurant.
What about anti-mask people who board the plane or enter the restaurant and then remove their masks? Are they behaving in accordance with libertarian principles? No, they are not. They are instead violating the conditions set forth by the private owner and implicitly agreed to by the customer himself. If an anti-mask person doesn’t like the airline’s or restaurant’s wear-a-mask policy, he can travel in some other fashion and eat in some other restaurant. But once he implicitly agrees to abide by the rules of the airline or the restaurant, he is entering into a contract that binds him to wear a mask. By taking off his mask during the flight or while headed toward the bathroom in the restaurant, he is breaching the contract that he has entered into.
While a government-imposed mask requirement violates libertarian principles, the removal of such a mandate is still not sufficient for a free society in a healthcare sense. This is what all too many libertarians, unfortunately, just don’t get. They want government to continue wielding the general power to control, regulate, or provide healthcare. They just want the government to exercise that power in a “libertarian” way.
Consider an example from the realm of religion. Suppose we lived in a society in which the federal and state governments wielded the power to regulate religion. One day, the federal government and various state governments enact a law that requires churchgoers to wear hats Into church.
Suddenly, fierce debates and discussions consume the country. The citizens divide up between the pro-hat and anti-hat factions. Libertarians enter the dispute by arguing that the pro-hat mandate violates libertarian principles. People should be free to decide for themselves whether to wear a hat in church, or churches should be free to set their hat policies, libertarians would argue.
In a limited sense, such libertarians would be right, but only in a limited sense. The real free society would be one in which federal and state governments were absolutely prohibited from regulating churches. Once such a prohibition comes into play, the issue of a pro-hat mandate policy never arises because the government simply lacks the power to regulate churches in any respect whatsoever.
Would libertarians make such an argument in the context of the hat debate? Some would but also some wouldn’t. The ones who wouldn’t would not want to lose credibility with the mainstream press and the general public by advocating an “extreme” position like the separation of church and state. Thus their arguments would be limited to simply showing people why the church regulations that the federal and state governments are issuing are “anti-libertarian.” Other libertarians would be raising people’s vision to a higher level when it comes to freedom — to a level calling for the separation of church and state.
The principle is the same with respect to healthcare. Some libertarians limit their arguments to showing why this healthcare regulation or that healthcare regulation violates libertarian principles. They even explain to people why a conservative-oriented libertarian (or a libertarian-oriented conservative) would do a better job as a government healthcare regulator because he would bring “free-enterprise” principles into the regulatory arena.
But real freedom in healthcare is the same as it is in religion — the total separation of healthcare and the state, both at the federal and state levels. Once government is prohibited from regulating healthcare, as it is with religion, people would no longer have to embroil themselves in endless debates and discussions over whether this regulation or that regulation should be adopted.
Thus, genuine freedom isn’t a society in which government is regulating peaceful behavior in a “responsible” or “libertarian” manner. Freedom is a society in which government lacks the power to regulate peaceful behavior at all.