Unmasking Liberty

Op-Ed by Mark Jenkins

Resident Scholar | Wyoming Humanities

I was Christmas shopping in a Wyoming store recently where everyone was wearing a mask, patrons and clerks, except for one tall cowboy. A clerk knew the man and asked him in a friendly way why he wasn’t wearing a mask. His response: “Because I’m not scared of some tiny little virus.” To the clerk’s credit, she responded that wearing a mask was more for the protection of others than for yourself. The cowboy took offense and stalked out of the store.

Despite media’s constant stream of mask-wearing how-and-why, this Wyomingite still didn’t get it. And, gathering from several nationally publicized incidents across Wyoming, he’s in good company. Washakie County Commissioners fired Dr. Ed Zimmerman, the county health officer, for mandating masks. Former Wyoming Department of Health employee Dr. Igor Shepherd said at a Colorado event that the “so-called pandemic” was a plot by Russia and China to spread communism. The Wyoming Republican Party recently passed a resolution calling for Governor Gordon to rescind his March 13 declaration of a state of emergency—a declaration that helped Wyoming doctors and nurses receive the PPE—146,294 N95 masks, 58,126 face shields, 2,398,538 gloves from the feds— necessary to protect themselves while caring for COVID-19 patients.

Wyoming is ranked number one in the country for mask non-compliance. Because of this behavior, not surprisingly, Wyoming is now ranked fourth in the nation for COVID cases per 100,000 people. The pandemic has already killed more than three times the number of all American soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Iraq, Viet Nam and Korea. Last week, finally recognizing the growing number of COVID-19 deaths in Wyoming, Governor Gordon reluctantly issued a mask mandate, but will Wyomingites follow the rules? 

Anti-maskers believe that being forced to wear a mask for the protection of others is an unconstitutional limit on their freedom. This was the same argument Wyoming legislators used twenty years ago to allow drivers to drink while driving. In the end, it wasn’t the number of innocent people killed by drunk drivers that forced Wyoming legislators to change the law (Wyoming is still ranked #2 in drunk driving fatalities); rather, the federal highway funds that our state would lose if we insisted on endangering the lives of our own citizens.

We don’t want to be told what to do, even if it’s good for us. And yet, as the old aphorism goes, “Your right to swing your arms ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, defined liberty as “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” Jefferson later helped France write its Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which states that “liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” 

John Stuart Mill, perhaps the most influential American political thinker of the 19th century, wrote in his book On Liberty,  “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Wearing a mask irrefutably prevents harm to others.

The fact is, in order to live together in some semblance of harmony, humans have created laws, rules and regulations to advance the greater good. In our democracy, we voluntarily limit our liberties to protect each other. It is illegal to drive 100 mph through a school zone because you could kill a six-year-old skipping across the street. It is illegal to drive drunk because you might kill some innocent mother driving home from the grocery store at night. 

The anti-mask argument about individual liberty is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. Freedom does not mean you can do anything you want—that is anarchy. Freedom means you have choices, one of which is to do what is right not simply for yourself, but for fellow humans. In her 1960 book You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident truths. Liberty is a right and a responsibility. There is nothing more patriotic than wearing a mask in order to protect your fellow citizens.