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Economics: Those who refuse to mask are just wrong


A fundamental assumption underlying libertarianism is each person’s sovereignty over their own physical bodies. This idea is the foundation of the right to private property, which is ownership over the product of one’s physical body.

Personal sovereignty also provides the fundamental logic to the adage, “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose,” or to rephase in a way more relevant to the time of COVID, “Your right to spew virus ends at my nasal cavity.” For Libertarians and Libertarian fellow travelers, like me, these are always the hardest questions. Where does the right to swing end and the nose begin? It’s a hard question.

For those who simplistically state that it is their American right not to wear a mask, they are wrong, because the right they claim conflicts with other’s right to go into public without being coated in virus-laden spittle. Among the fundamental functions of government, according to Libertarians, is the adjudication of conflicting rights.

For government to decide that the balance falls on requiring masks in public is not in conflict with basic American liberties. For government to decide the opposite also is not conflict. Balancing competing rights is a basic element of politics.

One idea would be to abandon a pure Libertarian approach to bring in utilitarian considerations. Utilitarianism is the school of thoughts that argues for the application of cost-benefit analysis in determining the best policy to pursue.

In the case of masks, the Utilitarian would compare the cost or harm imposed on the wearer to the benefit accruing to others. For example, one economic study found that mandatory mask laws reduced transmission rates by 10 percent, which would have reduced cumulative deaths in the United States by 40 percent through the end of May, about 40,000 lives.

The EPA uses $7.4 million as the value of a statistical life, meaning saving one life on average is expected to add $7.4 million in economic output. If wearing masks saves 40,000 lives, that translates into an expected savings of $296 billion.

A disposable face mask costs about 40-cents, so giving every American one mask a day for 90 days costs about $12 billion. The net monetary benefit from wearing masks is about $284 billion, or $811 per person for the three months ending May 31.

Of course, the above calculation does not take human suffering into account. The suffering of the millions who have contracted COVID, as well as the suffering of their loved ones, must be weighed against the discomfort felt by reluctant mask wearers. I think it’s obvious where the balance falls.

That is not to say that reluctant mask wearers don’t have a point. They are being asked to sacrifice their comfort and incur what they perceive to be an indignity for the benefit of others. This when the science, while becoming more certain, is still evolving.

Here Libertarian ideals can come to the rescue. The solution is to compensate mask wearers for giving up their property right, which is the joy of going maskless. Exactly how this would be done isn’t completely clear, maybe with a tax write-off.

A simpler and more effective payment might well be to say thank you to those around you wearing masks, in acknowledgment of their considerate behavior and kind concern for their follow Las Crucens’ health.

Christopher A. Erickson, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at NMSU. He considers himself to be a commonsense Libertarian, meaning that he defaults to Libertarian solutions, except when those solutions don’t work. The opinions expressed may not be shared by the regents and administration of NMSU. Erickson can be reached at chrerick@nmsu.edu.

Chris Erickson