In a study comparing the outcomes of different states which enforced lockdowns to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the writers found that “Mandated lockdowns had little effect on the spread of the coronavirus.” Whether it was California which enforced strict lockdowns that included beaches and skateparks, or South Dakota, which essentially left their state open for business, the patterns of outbreak and case numbers were practically the same.

In another study from the AAPS that evaluated the effectiveness of face masks, the writers concluded that “Wearing masks (other than N95) will not be effective at preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission, whether worn as source control or as PPE.” This means that the great majority of people wearing cloth masks are no better off than people who wear nothing. In fact, they may be at a greater risk since the masks cause wearers to touch their face more often and, if not washed daily, increase exposure to infection. This may be why countries without mask mandates like those in Scandinavia are doing just as well or better as those which do mandate masks.

Both these studies expose the problems with the logic of promoting excessive caution regardless of the consequences is the same. If society makes a decision on the basis of safety, no one can discuss the possible tradeoffs or even its effectiveness without being derided or ignored altogether. If it only gives the appearance of safety, regardless of actual scientific data, most people will still insist on it and force everyone else to comply.

If It Saves Just One Life...

To those who disagree, they will usually hear some form of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s now-famous declaration, “if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” If a lockdown or mask saves a life, it is worth overriding people’s autonomy and mandating it. Furthermore, even if it doesn’t save any lives (which seems to be increasingly the case), then at least the intention was valid.

Except that it isn’t. It’s time to be clear about this. Mandates for the sake of simply being on the safe side of things violate people’s freedoms and makes them miserable. On a deeper level, it distorts cultural values and dissolves communities.

First, it’s important to frame these mandates in the context of freedom, not just inconvenience. Whatever the issue might be, it is certain that every community-wide mandate is one less choice taken away from the individual. No longer can a person choose how to keep themselves safe; it is imposed on them—and sometimes it is actually less safe.

Moreover, removing choice also removes the thought behind the choice. If a governor or mayor mandates masks and a person has no choice, then he or she will not even think about the purpose of masking. Nor will they think about how viruses work if they’re forced to shelter in place. Rather, the thought that would have gone into managing a person’s own health and safety is often channeled into how to get others to comply. Thus, Americans and other Westerners now have to deal with busybodies (AKA “Karens”) who harangue and report others about following the rules.

With less freedom comes less thinking, and with less thinking comes an increased dependence on the leaders and experts who devised the mandates in the first place. Thus, society enters a negative cycle in which once free self-governing productive citizens increasingly become passive mindless consumers waiting for assistance from big government, big business, and big media.

This general helplessness may suit ambitious progressives looking to lead the country, but it signifies a worrying trend in American life. A passive population is also a less productive, creative, and religious population. Fewer people lack the drive to work harder, innovate, or practice their faith while more people come to see these things as either burdens or dangers. Instead of seeing coworkers, neighbors, or relatives as sources of support, people now see them as sources of stress or danger.

When "Safety" Becomes the Highest Good

Once this mindset prevails, values begin to change. Feelings begin to trump logic and reality. Even when hard evidence is given that a certain policy is either pointless or detrimental, most people would now insist that their symbolic utility (i.e. the masks symbolize safety and health) means more than their literal utility (i.e. the masks are phlegm-covered rags that give a false sense of security).

Writer Lenore Skenazy made this very case against in her essay “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take the Subway Alone.” In it, she defends her decision to let her young son take public transportation home on his own against those who claim that it would be too dangerous. She takes apart this concern by showing how this fear is almost completely founded on sensational anecdotes, not real data. She then concludes that the effect of this over-protectiveness will be a generation of kids who cannot do much for themselves: "A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can’t.” They will never develop the character and self-reliance essential to living as a responsible adult and making noteworthy achievements.

Twelve years later, Skenazy’s argument proves prophetic, as useless mandates, large and small, take a massive toll on today’s Americans. The kids who never took any risks along with the helicopter parents who never let them now make up the substantial portion of the population, and they support this style of governing. Coddled children who were never allowed to walk home on their own, play rough on the playground, or experience any real independence under their parents’ roofs, now think the only way to respond to a pandemic is to quit working and shut everything down. With any luck, an expert or smart-sounding politician will take care of the problem and let them know when it’s okay to come out, just like their parents did when they were younger.

Instead of enabling this collective learned helplessness with safe-seeming policies, government should empower them with more freedom—freedom to worship, to work, to shop, to socialize, and breathe without a mask over their face. Not only will they be able to do more and feel at peace with themselves and their neighbors, they will become safer and more rational. As Ben Franklin once said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” Hopefully, Americans will keep this in mind when they vote next month.

Photo Credit: Getty Images