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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

The Anti-Mask Debate? Economists Have Known About It Since 1833

For more than four months, the news has been dominated by people pushing back against orders from governors across the country to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some opponents have argued (falsely) that they have a constitutional right to do what they want; others have argued (falsely) that masks are ineffective as a matter of protecting others’ health; and still others have argued (you guessed it – once again, falsely) that masks harm their health. So, with imperfect compliance even in the states which have mandated masks, the pandemic drags on and on.

Although reporters frequently discuss the debate as if it were a brand-new issue, in fact it’s not. Economists have known about this phenomenon for centuries. It was first described by a British economist named William Forster Lloyd in 1833, and it’s called the “tragedy of the commons.” And no, asking nicely generally doesn’t help.

Tragedy of the commons originally was about the distribution of scarce resources, such as common land – pastureland owned in common by the community – in Great Britain. “Sure, I’ll send my stock to graze in the common, how much harm can they do?” – times a few hundred farmers. Since then, it’s been generalized to apply to any situation where a single economic actor, following only the actor’s self-interest, perceives that he or she will have only a minimal impact for good or ill on a situation and can thus ignore the common good.

One of the more well-known recent examples occurred in connection with traffic jams going into the business district in London (England, not Kentucky). Say you work downtown in London, and you’ve got a mid-morning appointment. So will you take the car to work today, or take mass transit? On the one hand, things are easier if you have the car. Sure, my one car will add microscopically to traffic delays, but it’s one car – what, maybe an extra second or two? So it’s an easy decision, and the car it is. But the problem is, 10,000 or 100,000 people make the same decision for the same reasons, and then you are, to use the technical economic term, well and truly hosed – gridlock.

Examples can be multiplied forever. Pollution? Pshaw, my one car – or industrial plant – or whatever – doesn’t add much. No big deal. Shall I dig out a bill or some coins for a homeless person? Nah – it’s not like I can solve homelessness by myself. And the same decision is multiplied thousands or millions of time, and nothing happens.

So what’s the solution? It’s a somewhat different problem when you’re talking about public goods like giving to the homeless, but in the case of societal costs – like traffic or pollution – the answer is to require individual actors to internalize the externalities of their behavior. Want to take the car into the London business district? Pay a surcharge on your trip, graduated to the time of day – you want to come in at the busiest time, it costs the most. Want to keep running your plant and putting the exhaust out into the air? Buy pollution credits.

So what’s all this have to do with wearing masks during a pandemic? I’m a single economic actor. Say I need to run out to the drug store or maybe the grocery – just a quick trip, no big deal. The mask? I can’t find it. Or it’s not comfortable. Or c’mon, I feel fine, I’m not gonna infect anybody. Or it’s only a short trip, I won’t breathe on anybody. Or big deal, even if I get it, odds are I’ll be fine. Sure, there are other non-economic values involved for many people – religion, morality, non-selfishness, public-spiritedness, concern for loved ones – that might motivate a different decision. But if that’s not enough to tip the balance, we’re left with the personal calculation described above. And none of the factors described above is facially irrational. Multiply it millions of times and where are we? Well, turn on the news and you’ll see.

Like any other tragedy of the commons problem, it’s all about requiring individual actors to internalize the externalities they’re creating for society. I saw a news report this morning – once again, Europe has figured it out ahead of us. Across Europe, countries are attaching significant fines to being outside without a mask. And if we want to see 95-100% compliance and finally get a handle on this pandemic, I’m skeptical that we have any alternative to doing the same thing.

So before the fines come, wear the mask, everyone. Because we truly are all in this together.

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