Just as the GOP abandoned years of conservative dogma to become the party of porn, Putin, and protectionism, so too has its respect for local authority—once understood to be a foundational principle—become situational.
Take Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning local mask requirements and threatening to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members following the CDC’s new Delta variant guidance.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has similarly banned local mask mandates, which may be a lot of things but is not conservative.
For a proper explanation of how this flies in the face of conservatism, you only have to go back a few years ago, when then-Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan explained that “the [Catholic] principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism” says the “government closest to the people governs best.” Ryan went on to say that this is how we can “advance the common good”—a term which has since been co-opted by the illiberal right to make the exact opposite argument—“by not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.”
Of course Ryan (who was then being heralded by the likes of Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham) was merely advocating preexisting conservative concepts.
First, there is the “knowledge problem” that economist F.A. Hayek warned about. Central planners, he argued, can’t possibly know everything, and the arrogant assumption that they do is a “fatal conceit.” What is more, by imposing one-size-fits-all solutions, central planners deprive us of diversity and experimentation.
There is an argument that a real free market would simply let individuals decide for themselves whether to wear a mask. But that argument doesn’t translate well when you add in a contagious virus that impacts other individuals, including children—the “live and let live” formulation we apply to other circumstances doesn’t fit when “live and let die” may be the closer analogy.
Let’s be honest, the stakes are high. While it is clear that children are less susceptible to COVID than adults, we are seeing numerous reports of kids getting sick and even dying from it. According to The Atlantic, “as the hypertransmissible Delta variant hammers the United States, the greatest hardships are being taken on by the unvaccinated, a population that includes some 50 million children younger than age 12.” It’s too soon to know whether the Delta variant is making kids sicker than other variants, but it’s understandable why some communities want to err on the side of caution.
What we are left with is a prudential public policy decision: what level of government should be making that call?
Second, humans inherently trust their friends and neighbors more than distant bureaucrats. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke, who many consider to be the founder of conservatism. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”
If members of this first link believe wearing masks is the right thing to do to keep their children safe and alive, then who is DeSantis to tell them otherwise? Can someone 500 miles away in Tallahassee realistically decide what’s best for kids and parents in Miami? Why not allow diverse community leaders who live in the community to exercise autonomy and err on the side of safety?
To be sure, automatic deference to local rule runs into problems when that local government is discriminatory, reactionary, xenophobic, oppressive or corrupt. But requiring masks isn’t the same as Jim Crow, no matter what Marjorie Taylor Greene might say. Although there is much hand-wringing about the physical and psychological toll of wearing masks, the potential downside of allowing local authorities to mandate wearing them is discomfort; the potential downside of DeSantis’ order is sickness, an overloaded medical system and needless deaths.
The anti-mask move is just the latest manifestation of DeSantis’ larger, unconservative, worldview. Just this week, a judge ruled that he can’t stop Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings from requiring passengers to be vaccinated. The notion that a political leader would prevent a private business from adopting such a reasonable policy was always at odds with a “no shoes, no shirt, no service” pro-business philosophy. But it was especially ironic for an adherent of a political philosophy that said it was wrong for big government to force a local business owners to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
As Republicans abandon conservative principles—that private businesses can make their own decisions and that a deference to local control is generally prudent—the question may be what lines are left to be crossed. In eschewing localism and conservatism, DeSantis is embracing populism.
DeSantis is a smart politician who’s transparently doing this to advance his own political career. He knows which way the wind is blowing in the GOP and he recognizes that masks have become a culture-war symbol—thus his attempt to double down on his anti-mask, tough-guy image. The only danger is that his bullying nature leaves conservatism, and Floridians, as collateral damage.
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