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Ep. 164 Analyzing Arguments for Mask Mandates

Bob explains a problem with arguments against mask mandates that claim vindication whether new case loads are very low or very high. He then points out that Biden’s own expert on covid-19 was skeptical of mask mandates in a June 2020 podcast episode.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."


  1. mOni on 11/18/2020 at 1:54 PM

    I was skeptical of Carlos Lara’s arguments against masks as well.

  2. Chris B on 11/19/2020 at 2:36 PM

    Hey Bob, I normally agree with you, and I don’t question your abundance of caution. But you wanted us to address your arguments head on.
    “Masks are a bad policy” is too loose a description of your opponents’ two different position.
    Argument 1 (rising cases): this argument shows evidence that masks are ineffective. If mask usage is high and the disease is spreading, it suggests that masks are either counterproductive or an insignificant variable.
    Argument 2 (low cases): this argument shows that masks policies are irrational, even if masks are effective in general. If politicians implement mask policies in areas where there is no significant virus presence, it suggests that the motives for the mandates are political, not scientific.

    Example: if California issues orders that everyone must wear shark repellent, but shark attacks increase over the next 6 months, it suggests the repellent is in effective.
    If Colorado issues orders that everyone must wear shark repellent, it suggests that there are ulterior motives for the mandate.

    So, each arguments attacks a different weakness of masks (ineffectiveness and irrational implementation, respectively.)

  3. Chris B on 11/19/2020 at 2:59 PM

    As an economist, there are two subtleties of corona policy where I would really appreciate hearing your opinion.
    One, can you comment on the diminishing benefits and increasing costs of combinations of virus containment measures? For example, hand washing and staying home if you are symptomatic are clearly beneficial and low cost. Mask mandates and social distancing are two policies that appear less effective together than the sum effectiveness of each. School and business closures seem to be policies that have huge costs, but the previous measures seem to mitigate the need for these more extreme measures.

    Two, what is the appropriate implementation of containment policies in the chronology of an outbreak? Should the severity of measures scale with the number of cases, or should heavy measure be front-loaded to minimize long-term impact? What metrics are most important to base policy on? When is it rational to scale back measures?

  4. John Thomas on 11/19/2020 at 4:29 PM

    I think I’m going to have to disagree with you. The two arguments presented against mask mandates can be held simultaneously and consistently.

    Imagine that both Florida and North Dakota issued a mandate that anyone who owns a field adjacent to a roadway must install snow fencing along the roadway.

    Someone in Florida says, “That’s stupid! It doesn’t even snow here!”

    Someone in North Dakota says, “That’s stupid. My neighbor has snow fencing, and there are still 10 foot snow drifts on the road beside his property!”

    One is arguing against the usefulness of snow fencing, because there isn’t a need for it. One is arguing against the efficacy of snow fencing, even if there might be a need for it. Depending on the situation, both of these arguments could be held.

    (You might even have someone say “Look how small a snow flake is compared to the holes in snow fencing. There’s no way snow fences could ever work.” But that would be a different argument entirely.)

    Similarly, depending on the situation, I think both mask arguments could be held consistently.

  5. Tuppenceworth on 11/19/2020 at 8:20 PM

    I went through the bulk of this episode assuming that in the high cases arguments there had been a mandate in force whilst in the low cases arguments there was no mandate. This is also what I understood when I saw your tweet. In that case, both arguments would have seemed reasonable (but not conclusive) so I was waiting for some mind-blowing explanation as to why you couldn’t point to both!

  6. The NAPster on 11/20/2020 at 1:20 PM

    I have to admit that I was a little confused by the argument that Bob was attacking. It seemed like sometimes he was talking about those looking at the current cases arguing about whether a mask mandate should be imposed, and sometimes about those looking at cases after a mandate had been imposed arguing whether the mask mandate had been effective. I couldn’t quite follow the alleged internal contradiction. You could argue that the cases are low and thus a mandate should not be imposed (no need), and then if it were imposed and the cases spiked, argue that it shouldn’t have been imposed because it wasn’t effective, and I don’t think that this would be contradictory.

  7. Martin Brock on 11/21/2020 at 12:35 PM

    Mass masking may be virtue signaling with little efficacy but so is covering one’s genitals in public. I much prefer a mask mandate to a lockdown shuttering businesses and throwing people out of work. Wearing a mask in the grocery store is not a terrible imposition on my personal liberty even if I doubt the efficacy of the policy. Voluntary policies at individual stores are more consistent with the virtues I prefer to signal, but I won’t be marching on townhall maskless with a pitchfork to protest a mandate. Anti-mask hysteria can be as irrational as the general pandemic hysteria.

    • The NAPster on 11/21/2020 at 3:31 PM

      “I much prefer a mask mandate to a lockdown shuttering businesses and throwing people out of work.”
      — Why must they be alternatives? Why not live as we did pre-2020, with neither?

      “Wearing a mask in the grocery store is not a terrible imposition on my personal liberty even if I doubt the efficacy of the policy.”
      — Well, if that is so, then presumably you wouldn’t object to permanent mask wearing, as how could we ever be sure that folks aren’t spewing forth some other “deadly” pathogen in the future? You can be sure that plenty of nervous folks will be arguing for this.

  8. Thomas Phillips on 11/21/2020 at 10:02 PM

    Bob covered the only point I think is important about this (and all) mandates: what if the mandaters are wrong?

    Of course Twitter is not the place to go for structured and reasoned arguments, but it’s a good barometer for the sloganeering trends. It’s best suited for trolling – due to low character count, anonymity and the inherent competition built into getting recognized (which favors incendiary comments)

    Everyone expressing a thought, in 160 characters or less, is referencing a personal context that makes everything they say at least true in the emotional sense.

    They are each a product informed by their own demographic, geographic and cultural environment.

    Guess my only point about Twitter is that it’s the wrong venue to hash out anything that’s complex.

    It is, however, great for discussing sports!

    All I have to add to the mask efficacy debate is this: mandates aside, are you closing any doors when you choose to wear the mask?

    What I mean is whether the act of donning the mask become the symbolic act that allows you to resume your life as you previously knew it?

    Where is the line between a statistical advantage of stopping spittle and putting yourself at more casual overall risk by hanging out around strangers?

    This is the voting conundrum (as I see it) for libertarians. If Party A is preferable to Party B for a short 2, 4 or 6 year interval, is there a philosophical trade-off in the enduring sense?

    Even if you, personally, can keep focus on your own principles; will the people who know you personally, and know you also advocate voting, think that your higher principles are secondary to taking part in the system you claim to believe is illegitimate?

  9. Not bob on 11/22/2020 at 2:56 AM

    I don’t follow what the contradiction is.

    If I held the belief that masks don’t help with corona virus at all, it seems very consistent that I am against them being imposed in case of high case rates (instead of doing something that actually helps), and in case of extremely low case rates. Why impose a cost on something that doesn’t solve a problem when that problem doesn’t even exist in this population?

  10. Brian Tortoriello on 11/28/2020 at 4:37 PM

    Hey Bob. I loved this episode. I struggle with this all the time. Reading people’s responses and thinking to myself… You aren’t even in the same conversation.

    Anyway two things I hope I can bother you with. I’ve always tried to avoid saying masks don’t work and in fact the research I’ve dug through does indicate N95 is the only proven effective method at reducing risk to the user. Otherwise there’s no sound evidence and the data is all over the place so much so it’s impossible to correlate imo, as ‘the other guy you used to do podcast with’ has shown.

    My 1 question is, do you think it’s wrong in context to respond with these contrary points, simply to show that the person making there point is in fact cherry picking? Not that I hold say the high numbers in city x alone as prove they don’t work, but solely pointing out it’s incongruent with the oppositional
    Claim that they do because city y has no cases…

    My second thing is really bothering me. I agree the coercion, I agree the property rights, etc etc. I agree the government makes it worse and I love the way you break it down about people who do have concerns knowing where it’s safe to go. That being said, considering corporate structures simply exist en masse thanks to the state, I feel we as libertarians/ancaps, give too much leeway in regards to them being a private entity.. I’m not arguing for more government at all. I’m just saying for them to have their position established (at least to the degree it is whether or not they were self starters), maintained and protected by the state I feel like it’s a mistake to argue it’s their right without making these points as a caveat.

    I know I’m not saying this as well as it could be said, but I think it’s close enough you’ll be able to tease out what it is I’m getting at.

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