By: Arjun Verma
Despite the fact that its unwavering commitment to individual freedom appears to come into conflict with societal interests, libertarianism can in fact be compatible with public health measures like mask mandates that are essential in extreme situations like those of today.
What did Robert Nozick believe?
While Nozick contributed to many areas of philosophy, his most well-known and impactful contribution was in the realm of political philosophy. Nozick was famous for defending libertarianism. This was the belief that individuals have innate human rights that were inviolable. People had a right to self-ownership.
For him, this meant that the only state that was legitimate would be one that’s sole purpose was to protect rights via services like national security and domestic law enforcement. Other than that, the state should not intervene in how people conducted their lives.
Nozick was famous for rejecting the logic of the greater good. He believed that the rights of the individual should take precedence over societal welfare. He argued that violating the rights of the individual was antithetical to the principle of self-ownership because it meant that one person was being subordinated to the will of the people and thus being denied their worth as a human.
How does this relate to masks?
A common critique of mask mandates utilizes libertarian logic. Many opponents of requiring masks argue that it violates individual liberties to force certain people to wear something against their will. Requiring masks seems like the ultimate extension of state power, which is something that libertarians deeply wish to avoid.
However, it certainly seems overwhelmingly in the public interest for people to wear masks. After all, masks protect people from receiving a deadly virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people just in the United States.
So is there a way to reconcile libertarianism with our intuitions about masks?
First, it’s important to note that there must be exceptions to every rule in outstanding circumstances. No theory can be absolutist; otherwise, it would be impractical. For example, it seems irrational to prioritize a small violation of property rights over human extinction. Along the same lines, in the case of masks, there are substantial risks to letting the virus spread unimpeded, like countless deaths and economic catastrophe. Therefore, even a libertarian can allow exceptions in extreme cases such as the one we are in now.
Second, the nature of libertarianism is that it distinguishes itself from both big government and anarchism. Libertarians, while against the overextension of state power, are also against the idea of a lawless society without any checks against people acting unethically. This is why people give up some of their freedoms, like their freedom to murder people, in exchange for other rights, like security. Likewise, there is a limit to how much freedom is necessary. For example, a mask is often necessary to prevent the unnecessary deaths of others. That seems very similar to another uncontroversial legitimate restriction on freedom: the inability to murder others without consequences. While there are obvious differences, the same reasoning applies.
Third, a purely individualistic account of how society should work seems divorced from reality. There really is no person who can operate completely independently from the rest of society. Communities work together to achieve more than any individual could. Therefore, it’s important to sometimes sacrifice one’s individual freedoms for the good of the community.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.