Writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, columnist Bret Stephens highlighted new research from an Oxford University epidemiologist who found that masks—and mask mandates—did nothing to slow the spread of Covid-19 or protect people from the virus.
The most rigorous and comprehensive analysis of scientific studies conducted on the efficacy of masks for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses — including Covid-19 — was published late last month. Its conclusions, said Tom Jefferson, the Oxford epidemiologist who is its lead author, were unambiguous.
“There is just no evidence that they” — masks — “make any difference,” he told the journalist Maryanne Demasi. “Full stop.”
But, wait, hold on. What about N-95 masks, as opposed to lower-quality surgical or cloth masks?
“Makes no difference — none of it,” said Jefferson.
What about the studies that initially persuaded policymakers to impose mask mandates?
“They were convinced by nonrandomized studies, flawed observational studies.”
The op-ed has gathered a great deal of attention, especially from opponents of mask mandates who for years have argued masking did not offer the protection against the virus that mask proponents claimed.
I must point out, however, this isn’t the first time the Grey Lady has taken aim at masking or mask mandates. In June 2022 I highlighted an article written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Leonhardt that explored the ineffectiveness of mask mandates.
In U.S. cities where mask use has been more common, Covid has spread at a similar rate as in mask-resistant cities. Mask mandates in schools also seem to have done little to reduce the spread. Hong Kong, despite almost universal mask-wearing, recently endured one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks.
Advocates of mandates sometimes argue that they do have a big effect even if it is not evident in population wide data, because of how many other factors are at play. But this argument seems unpersuasive.
Not to toot my own horn, but I was writing against mask mandates when it was still considered verboten to do so. I was called anti-science for pointing out uncomfortable truths. Some readers even said they hoped my children would die of Covid for writing such a thing.
In reality, it was the mask mandate proponents who were anti-science.
How did they make such a mistake? Some might argue they simply relied on bad studies, and that is of course part of the problem. But the truth is they made two mistakes that were even bigger.
The first was ignoring that masking came with serious tradeoffs, something some scientists learned the hard way. The second mistake was to focus on ends instead of means.
As I pointed out last summer, libertarians are fond of a popular adage: good ideas don’t require force. Libertarians don’t use this line just because we have an aversion to coercion. We use it because we are aware that force also produces dismal results.
We often forget this, and I don’t just mean humans.
A lot of libertarians forgot this lesson during the pandemic. Many notable libertarian leaders and institutions (I’ll refrain from naming them) were notably silent about lockdowns and other NPI (Nonpharmaceutical Interventions) in 2020. (Some of them found their voices in 2021 and 2022.)
Whether this was out of cowardice or the belief that these mitigations would actually work we’ll never know. Either way, they would do well to read FEE founder Leonard Read, who in his 1969 essay “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed,” argued that one could reasonably predict the ends of an action by the means employed.
Examine the actions—means—that are implicit in achieving the goals.
Implicit in the collectivistic approach…is the masterminding of the people…The control of the individual’s life is from without. [But for] an individualist…what is valued above all else [is] each distinctive individual human being.
Any conscientious collectivist, if he could…properly evaluate the authoritarian means his system of thought demands, would likely defect.
However lofty the goals, if the means be depraved, the result must reflect that depravity.
In his Times article, Stephens asks: “Will any lessons be learned?”
It’s an important question, but the real lesson from the pandemic isn’t that masking doesn’t work. It’s that we need to focus on the means we use, not the ends we seek.