James Seidelman and John Watkins: Ban on mask mandates is playing Russian roulette with people’s lives

Free-market economists would argue that the state should defer to local public health officials.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather as the Salt Lake County Council holds a brief meeting on the mask mandate, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.

The Utah Legislature’s decision to ban mask mandates appears to preserve individual freedom, the foundation of free markets. The irony is that businesses are free to continue to require masks, schools and colleges are not. Preserving freedom for some eliminates freedom for others, tantamount to playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.

Obstructing efforts to vaccinate people and forcing public schools and colleges to do in-person classes without mask mandates is an act of involuntary manslaughter – the unintentional killing that results either from recklessness or criminal negligence.

The Legislature prides itself on demanding that local control should be up to local officials. Instead, the legislature has adopted a central planning approach, violating a fundamental tenant of conservative economics. As Nobel Laurette and champion of free markets Friedrich Hayek noted, central planners lack sufficient knowledge to make good choices.

This legislative body decided it knows better than public health experts in managing the pandemic. They claim the costs to freedom and individual liberty outweigh the public health benefits of mandates. Don’t allow local communities to decide for themselves. We know what’s best for the people; let the virus have its way.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to communicate the benefits of freedom to more than 4,000 Utahns who already died and thousands of others with debilitating long Covid. More will die and denying the public’s freedom to live a pandemic-free life. Banning mask mandates in public schools will force many educators to leave the profession.

Further, the misguided strategy on part of the Legislature rests on a misunderstanding of free markets. Markets preserve freedom by basing economic relations on voluntary cooperation. Milton Friedman, the foremost spokesman of conservative economics in the last half of the 20th century, claimed that free markets create “cooperation without coercion.” Friedman recognized, however, the existence of externalities, what he called neighborhood effects, violate individual freedom, causing markets to fail.

Externalities impede freedom by involuntarily imposing costs or benefits on others. Polluted air along the Wasatch Front caused by industry and automobile emissions is an obvious example of a negative externality. Vaccinations and mask wearing against COVID-19 convey benefits to others creating positive externalities. We benefit because these behaviors reduce our risk of getting sick.

With externalities, the market fails because it under-supplies positive externalities and over-supplies negative externalities. Because markets generally respond to incentives (subsidies and taxes), the ideal government policy subsidizes activities that produce positive externalities and taxes activities that create negative externalities. It’s why we should tax carbon emissions and subsidize renewable energy. Providing free COVID vaccines and subsidizing their development illustrate good public policy. The evidence is clear: the pandemic would be less lethal and disruptive if vaccination and mask wearing were more prevalent.

Arguing that banning mandates preserves liberty is specious, a deadly pathogen wrapped in a beautiful box called freedom. Why not eliminate other impediments to individual freedom? Why not eliminate speed limits, eliminate laws requiring seat belts, and end mandating car seats for infants? These laws restrict the freedom of some people to preserve the safety and lives of others. But mandating mask wearing, in the most populous county in Utah, is, of course, taboo, compounded by the hypocrisy that local governments should make local decisions, except where those decisions conflict with the ruling party.

This begs the question, if societies welfare is enhanced by vaccinations and mask wearing, why such resistance? Disinformation and conspiracy theories, the selfish individualism of the market, and anti-government bias all play a role.

So, why do Republicans deliberately promote these anti-science and anti-government sentiments. It appears that local and national Republican leaders want COVID and the pandemic to persist. Vaccine and mask obstructionism isn’t about public safety, science, or sound economics. Instead, as Paul Krugman noted, it is “about the pursuit of power. A successful vaccination campaign would have been a win for the Biden administration, so it had to be undermined using any and every argument available.”

The anti-government and anti-science crazies, conspiracy theorists and right-wing libertarians are feeling empowered, thus solidifying the Republican base for the midterm elections. We would hope the Utah Legislature would be above this, that they would place public safety above ideology and power. Regrettably, we are mistaken.

James “Cid” Seidelman | Westminster College

James “Cid” Seidelman is distinguished service professor of economics and former provost of Westminster College.

John Watkins | Westminster College

John P. Watkins is a professor of economics at Westminster College.

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