All Commentary
Thursday, April 21, 2022 Leer en Español

Why the Feds Are Clinging to Their Mask Mandate

Airports have been the main stages for security and hygiene "theater."

Photo by Sean Mullowney on Unsplash

Bureaucrats cling to power. It’s their institutional predisposition.

So it was no surprise on Wednesday when the Department of Justice appealed the recent Federal court ruling that struck down the mask mandate imposed on mass transportation by the Centers for Disease Control.

As the appeal demonstrates, governments are especially reluctant to give up emergency powers. When they do, the relinquishment is grudging and only partial.

That is a big reason why big government keeps getting bigger. As economist Robert Higgs showed in his book Crisis and Leviathan, since the early 20th century, the US government has exploited every national emergency to seize emergency powers. After the crisis subsides, government power recedes, but never all the way back to pre-crisis levels. In this way, the federal government “ratchets up” its power, at the expense of our liberty, crisis after crisis.

This “ratchet effect,” as Higgs termed it, is on vivid display in airports especially. There, the travel mask mandate persisted long after the pandemic panic subsided and many other COVID policies were rolled back. And if the DOJ’s appeal succeeds, it may return and linger even longer.

The wretched ratchet effect is also manifest in the many post-9/11 airport security policies that the Transportation Security Administration continues to enforce more than two decades after the crisis that spawned them.

A curious aspect of many of these policies is how seemingly petty they are. Why is the government so adamant about travelers removing their shoes at security and wearing masks? The effectiveness of such measures has been shown to be highly dubious at best. Moreover, such compelled performances of “security theater” and “hygiene theater” don’t even seem to provide much material benefit to the government. What’s the point of ratcheting up that kind of power?

I suspect a major purpose of such petty policies is the mass inculcation of obedience. Security theater and hygiene theater are part and parcel of a broader “obedience theater.” Humiliating compulsory gestures like removing your shoes and wearing your mask are obeisances: symbolic ritual acts of self-abasement and submission.

It’s not about keeping you safe or healthy. It’s about showing you who’s boss.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.