I suppose I understand Ben’s point that a responsible conservatism does not need a state mandate to enforce socially responsible behavior during a pandemic. That individuals and private associations are willing to act in responsible ways and require mask wearing even if the government does not mandate it. And that’s in contrast to “Trumpian” conservatism that emphasizes rebellion against the state. The latter engages in a kind of posturing, which leads supporters to refuse to wear masks even when they are mandated by private entities rather than government agents. It makes masks a partisan issue subject to the performative politics of posturing on both sides. Yet it’s not clear that Governor Abbot’s rescinding the mask mandate and other restrictions, while numbers are actually rising in Texas, isn’t part of the performative politics that Ben bemoans. And even if responsible agents in civil society are the best mechanism for carrying this out, it seems perfectly reasonable that a responsible conservatism would have no issue with a government mandate—as long as it followed the proper procedures and was applied the same to similarly situated individuals and organizations.
While Ben notes that even absent the mandate, there are those who are acting in socially responsible ways, his evidence is anecdotal. We would need to know a lot more than we do at this point to fully accept Ben’s argument. Given what we do know, a continued mandate seems like the truly responsible position—for conservatives and liberals. Even taking a robust understanding of liberty, mask mandates and the like are well within the legitimate police powers of the state. Indeed, even accepting an expansive view of liberty as articulated by the Lochner Court, mask mandates are a reasonable regulation for public health that responsible conservatives should be able to accept. As I wrote in The Bulwark on this issue:
Just two months before Lochner was handed down, Justice Harlan wrote an opinion in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that upheld a state law allowing local authorities to require vaccinations. Against an outbreak of smallpox, the city of Cambridge required such vaccinations. The Court, recognizing “liberty itself” as “the greatest of all rights,” nevertheless insisted that it does not include “an absolute right in each person” to be “wholly freed from restraint.” The “safety of the general public” may demand regulations of liberty with regard to public health. All the more so “against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” Indeed, an epidemic might justify regulations we would not ordinarily tolerate if the public health and safety required it.
Given the stakes, and what a slight burden mask wearing is, I think Ben is straining to see virtue in Governor Abbot’s actions. And it’s not at all clear why true conservatives would think mask mandates were not within the proper purview of the state.