“I don’t need a mask!” declared the San Diego woman to a Starbucks barista. The woman apparently believed she had a right to enter mask-free, contrary to the coffee bar’s policy. A surprising number of Americans treat expectations of mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic in a similar way — as if these expectations were paternalistic, limiting people’s liberty for their own good. They are dead wrong.
Their thinking reflects what we might call “faux libertarianism,” a deformation of the classic liberal theory known as libertarianism. Libertarianism is the political and moral philosophy according to which everyone has rights to life, liberty, and property — and various specific rights that flow from these fundamental ones. Libertarian rights are rights of noninterference, rather than entitlements to be provided with services. So your right to life is a right not to be killed and does not include a right to life-sustaining health care services. And your right to property is a right to acquire and retain property through your own lawful actions, not a right to be provided property.
Libertarianism lies at the opposite end of the political spectrum from socialism, which asserts positive rights to such basic needs as food, clothing, housing and health care. According to libertarianism, a fundamental right to liberty supports several more specific rights including freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship. Neither the state nor other individuals may violate these rights of competent adults for their own protection. To do so would be unjustifiably paternalistic, say libertarians, treating grown-ups as if they needed parenting.
Why do I claim that Americans who resist mask-wearing in public embrace faux libertarianism, a disfigured version of the classic liberty-loving philosophy? Because they miss the fact that a compelling justification for mask-wearing rules is not paternalistic at all — not focused on the agent’s own good — but rather appeals to people’s responsibilities regarding public health. This point is entirely consistent with libertarianism.
Consider your right to freedom of movement. This right does not include a right to punch someone in the face, unless you both agree to a boxing match, and does not include a right to enter someone else’s house, without an invitation. Rights extend only so far. They do not encompass prerogatives to harm others (without their consent) or violate their rights. Once we appreciate that rights have boundaries, rather than being limitless, we can see the relationship between liberty rights and public health.
Your rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, and so on do not encompass a prerogative to place others at undue risk; to endanger others in this way is to violate their rights, which you have no right to do. This idea justifies our sensible laws against drunk driving. So even a libertarian can, and should, applaud Starbucks and its barista for insisting on mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether or not the woman who said she didn’t need a mask had a right to ignore her own health, she had no right to put other customers and Starbucks employees at risk — either directly, by possibly spreading infection, or indirectly, by flouting a norm of mask-wearing that is reasonably related to public health and protecting other people from harm and rights violations.
The fallacy of faux libertarianism is thinking that liberty rights have unlimited scopes, that one’s right to freedom of association, for example, means a right to get together with anyone, at any time, under any circumstances, even if doing so endangers others. If liberty rights had unlimited scopes, then there could be no legitimate laws or social norms — since all laws and norms limit liberty in some way or another. That means that, if faux libertarianism were correct, then the only legitimate government would be no government at all, which is to say anarchy as opposed to civil society. And if no social norms were legitimate, then each of us would lack not only legal rights but also moral rights. In that case, we would have no right to liberty or anything else.
Unlike libertarianism, which is a coherent outlook, faux libertarianism refutes itself by destroying any intelligible basis for rights to life, liberty, and property. I am no fan of libertarianism, which I find problematic at various levels. But it is far more compelling than its incoherent impostor, faux libertarianism. Mask up, people, before you enter crowded, public spaces!
David DeGrazia (email@example.com) is the Elton Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University.