In the 1960s, numerous countries (including the United States) began adopting laws that mandated the use of seat belts. The hope was that this would reduce mortality in motor accidents.
However, economist Gordon Tullock once quipped that “if the government wanted people to drive safely, they’d mandate a spike in the middle of each steering wheel.” Why would that be? Because of how we respond to risks. If we know that even the slightest accident might impale us on our driving wheel, we would all drive more safely. While it is a strange thought experiment, we can run it in reverse. If one driver knows that all the other drivers are wearing a seat belt while he also wears a seat belt, that driver faces a lower risk level. As a result, feeling safer, that driver acts more recklessly. He exceeds the speed limit, accelerates at a yellow light etc. This greater recklessness, in turn, increases the risks of an accident.
As a result, there is an ambiguous effect from the regulation. On the one hand, the law reduces risks but it also induces a behavioral response that increases the likelihood of an accident happening. Thus, we must wonder which effect dominates the other.
The same logic applies to face masks. Imagine a fictitious Canadian economist who, fearing the risk of bringing the virus to a loved one or catching the virus himself, avoids situations that would be too risky for his tastes. He avoids going to the coffee shop for a latte and limits himself only to doing groceries. With everyone being forced to wear a mask, he may decide to go pick up that latte. Technically, the activities of shopping for coffee and groceries are individually less risky with mandatory face masks. However, that fictitious economist now exposes himself to two activities that carry a risk rather than a single activity and so he faces a higher likelihood of catching the disease. Just as with seat belts, we must ask which effect dominates: the risk reduction of masks or the behavioral response?
In the end, the answer is an empirical one. Yet, the case of seat belt laws suggests that the precise answer might be elusive. The first paper of importance on the effect of seat belts was published in the 1970s by Sam Peltzman who found that the behavioral response by American drivers completely washed out the effects of the law. Since then, numerous papers on the topic have been published. Some confirm the findings of Peltzman while others infirm them. All these studies confirm that there is some offsetting behavior. They simply cannot agree on how strong it is.
However, let us take one important fact in consideration: the first laws mandating seat belt use were adopted in the 1960s. This is more than fifty years ago. Yet, there is still a discussion among experts who try to design the most convincing statistical tests. If there is uncertainty about the past, how can experts today be certain that compelling the use of face masks will not result in a greater level of risk taking? What if the offsetting behavior is stronger? Experts and policy-makers probably do not know this information (and I believe that they cannot reasonably be expected to know this). As the damages from faster propagation are exponential (given the nature of the virus), there is a real risk of backfire!
The question of whether or not seat belts, motorcycle helmets, masks, suits of medieval armor, etc save lives might be a fascinating one. It’s probably worth the ongoing research it inspires, I suppose. Ultimately, though, it’s the wrong question. What any and all Americans SHOULD be asking themselves, and constantly, is this: in a supposedly “free” country, with a government whose reach and scope is confined within very explicit limits set by the US Constitution, are ANY such mandates in accordance with those limits? Or do they so flagrantly breach them as to do far greater harm to the Constitution’s continued authority and relevance, thereby harming the nation entire?
Tragically, most of us long ago forgot about just how important that question really is, and no longer care anyway. If they think about them at all, they consider such notions quaint, antiquated, and hopelessly silly—the exclusive province of cranks and fools who are completely out of touch with reality, too thick to really comprehend what government’s true purpose is: to solve every problem, grant every wish, scratch every itch, safeguard every life, and abolish all risk, forever.