The resurgence of COVID-19 in Georgia and elsewhere has unmasked an intriguing difference of opinion about how best to move people to do right.
Unlike some of his peers, Gov. Brian Kemp has refused to require Georgians to wear masks or other face covers in public as part of the effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Yet leaders in some key cities are mandating masks in defiance of Kemp, whose executive order prohibits local governments from issuing orders either more or less strict than his policies.
The most notable rebel is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who this past week issued an order to wear masks in her city. A Kemp spokeswoman maintained that order was “unenforceable.”
A friend explained that meant any fines or other punishments would be void. Still, I prefer to read “unenforceable” differently.
The enforceability of a proposed law often is a topic of some debate as it’s considered. But maybe not enough debate.
A mandate (or prohibition) with no real consequences is worthless. Actually, it’s worse than that: It’s corrosive to self-government.
Some people obey any rule they encounter. Others weigh how likely they are to be punished for disobeying it — and they may take their cue from watching what happens to yet another group, those who have no inclination to follow the rule.
The third group might believe they won’t be caught disobeying, or they might not care about the punishment if they are. Either way, if they do get away with it, their behavior will convince some in the second group they don’t have to follow the rule, either. Eventually, the effectiveness of the rule will wane. (Alas, this only prompts many an elected official or bureaucrat to propose a new, even stricter rule.)
Not to get too paternalistic about government, but anyone who’s a parent, or a teacher, or who otherwise supervises children, learns this lesson very quickly: Only make rules you’re willing and able to enforce, or your ability to enforce any rules will weaken.
It’s too soon to say how this will go with masks. If it does not go well, what’s the alternative?
The alternative is what Kemp has tried: persuasion. Rather than ordering people to take a certain action, appeal instead to their reason and compassion for others to persuade them to do it.
Unfortunately, the data indicate that isn’t working. Cases are soaring. Hospitals are filling back up. Deaths are not following suit — yet — but the situation need not become that tragic to be harmful to a number of people. Certainly, more harmful than wearing a bit of cloth over one’s face.
We could parse Kemp’s persuasive techniques, or the ways public health experts have vacillated on the issue over the past few months, or the cultural obstacles to wearing masks, or the people who have politicized what should be a neutral public-health tool.
But there’s a more fundamental problem here that goes well beyond this particular issue.
Persuasion is not the most-used tool in the political toolbox these days. Red meat to rev up the base? Yes. Demonizing the opponent to discourage his base? Absolutely. Vilifying certain beliefs to intimidate people from even entertaining them? Just ask the “deplorables.”
But before we go too far down the road of bashing politicians, let’s remember politics is a market unto itself. Suppliers (politicians) offer what is in demand (from voters).
How many signs do we see that we, the voters, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, are open very much to being persuaded? We seek out news outlets that reflect our existing views. We employ litmus tests to disqualify dissenters from the start. We excuse or excoriate behavior based on the letter, R or D, next to the offender’s name.
We aren’t looking to be persuaded, only validated.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when efforts to persuade fall short, and efforts to coerce are adopted instead. But we should be worried.