Op-Ed by Barry Brownstein
Many days my Facebook feed includes another indignant post from someone who when asked to wear a mask responded by righteously refusing to patronize the business. If it’s about a restaurant, the poster typically includes a tedious recital of a conversation with the manager. The offended customer claims to expose the illogic of being able to sit without a mask but not walk to the table unmasked.
Then comes the customer’s triumphant conclusion: The restaurant used to care about my business, but since they no longer do, I will never dine there again. Still worse, offended customers urge others to join their boycott. Predictably, a long thread begins with others sharing indignities they’ve suffered.
I am not without sympathy for the boycotters’ position. Like others, I am alarmed about where mask mandates and other erosions to civil liberties may lead. And I too have drawn my line in the sand. When required by a hostess to provide personal information for contact tracing in case of an “outbreak,” my wife and I quietly refused and left the restaurant.
So, what is my beef with the boycotters? As Jeffrey Tucker recently observed, “Many millions of owners, workers, and customers have been treated so brutally [by government] in the ‘War on Restaurants.’”
Yelp reports, “As of August 31, 163,735 total U.S. businesses on Yelp have closed since the beginning of the pandemic… with 60% of those closed businesses not reopening (97,966 permanently closed).”
Is boycotting how we want to treat small businesses already under siege?
Consumers Drive Mask Policies
Despite how it may appear to offended customers, a national mask mandate has bipartisan support from “a vast majority of voters.” Biden did not make mask mandates a campaign issue without polling data.
I live in New Hampshire; there is no statewide mask mandate. In rural areas of the state, incidences of Covid-19 have been close to nonexistent. Yet, mask requirements have become ubiquitous. Business owners are often responding to the demands of frightened consumers. A good small business owner continually tunes into what their customers want, or their business fails.
In our small town, I have known business owners for many years. They have shared with me their frustration over finding the right balance to please their customers. One owner shared with me the story of an incident triggered by my own behavior. I had been in his establishment while not wearing a mask; I had a typical conversation with employees I knew. After I left the store, a fearful customer went ballistic, making a scene and vowing never to shop there again. The owner was not upset with me but was exasperated by the fear and anger of the customer.
Our local produce farmer, Steve, is normally unflappable with his typical N.H. live-and-let-live streak. Each spring, he rolls the dice as he bets on the date of the last frost. If Steve plants too early, he will lose a crop and have to start again. A bit too late, and he misses out on precious summer income.
Through July 2020, Steve had no mask requirement at his outdoor farmstand. In August, the mask requirement sign went up.
“Barry,” he said to me in August, “This mask business is getting to me.” I listened as he explained that about 5% of the customers go storming off when asked to put on a mask. He regrets their anger, especially since that’s income he can’t afford to lose. So why the mask requirement? Far more customers scolded him earlier in the summer for not having a mask requirement.
Steve is no mask zealot. When other customers aren’t around, we converse normally without a mask. His mask decision is purely driven by his on-the-ground read of his market.
Steve was visited by a state health inspector. While the state has no mandatory policy, the inspector found a way to convince Steve to choose to enforce a mask requirement or run the risk of being closed by the health department.
Driven by pressure from customers with additional pressure from an inspector, for Steve, a mask requirement seemed to be the best course of action. Better to lose some business than all business.
If you tell me Steve should make a heroic stand for liberty and go down fighting, I say, you don’t know Steve or his business. Beginning in March with planting and then through Halloween, he and his employees put in long grueling days serving locals and tourists. Steve has not gotten rich; he has no nest egg to survive one lost season.
Steve is responding to his consumers, and like many small businesses, is trying to survive.
Markets Join Us, Government Tears Us Apart
The Covid-19 crisis has led to policies of separation. Whom markets brought together, government is tearing asunder. Do we want to fight separation with more separation?
The manifestations of fear are many, but behind the visible is the invisible mindset: Us vs. Them. The face-off is between those who prefer to mask and those who prefer to go without a mask. Biden’s attempt to frame mask wearers as less selfish and more patriotic is another manifestation of growing polarization.
When I listened to farmer Steve, I reflected on my boorish judgments about risk-averse people we’ve encountered on the hiking trails this summer. Most hikers don’t mask; some mask when they see you coming.
My wife and I don’t hike with masks; we’ll try to get off the trail and not disturb the peace of masked hikers. “Shields up, kids,” one mother said to her children as she saw us approaching. We stepped off the trail and their masks went up, anyway.
I wish I could tell you I thought no more about their decision to “shield” than I thought about their choice of backpacks. Yet, “righteous” thoughts on the mask issue crept into our conversation about their “shields up” action.
Opinions are often based on assumptions we make about the actions of others. We thought the mother was foolishly depriving her children of a needed unmasked day of fresh air in the great outdoors. Is that true? Perhaps in her mind, she was more concerned about us than we were about her.
How about those who gripe about the restaurant owner who “didn’t care about my business?” Is that true? In today’s times, the owner desperately cares about all business and tries to navigate competing consumer demands.
In his important 2014 essay Against Libertarian Brutalism, Jeffrey Tucker asks, “Why should we favor human liberty over a social order ruled by power?” To answer his questions, Tucker argues, “Libertarians can generally be divided into two camps: humanitarians and brutalists.”
Tucker observes that humanitarians are inspired by the idea that “Liberty allows peaceful human cooperation.” Liberty “socializes people with rewards toward getting along rather than tearing each other apart, and leads to a world in which people are valued as ends in themselves rather than fodder in the central plan.”
Of brutalists, Tucker observes, “What’s impressive about liberty is that it allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on ‘politically incorrect’ standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means.”
Libertarian humanitarians, Tucker argues, value “the social peace that emerges from freedom, while the [brutalists value] the freedom to reject cooperation in favor of gut-level prejudice.”
Even in 2014, Tucker observed, “The brutalist impulse is everywhere in evidence, especially on social media.”
Angry customers are sure a store’s mask policy ruined their day; to boycott is justified retribution.
Liberty protects the right to call for a boycott of an honorable business whose views of what their customers want is different from yours. Proceed with caution: A boycott does not heal but undermines the “social peace” as people live in fear and government policies tear apart the social fabric.
The Arbinger Institute, in their book The Anatomy of Peace, helps us to distinguish two fundamental ways of being in the world. These two ways of being are another lens to understand Tucker’s humanitarians and brutalists dichotomy.
The two Arbinger mindsets, based on the work of philosopher Martin Buber, lead to different ways of interacting with other people: “We can see others either as people, who matter like we ourselves matter, or as objects that don’t matter like we matter. When we see others as counting like we ourselves count, our hearts are at peace. When we see others as not counting like we count, our hearts are at war.”
Our personal salvation depends upon our choices. As the Arbinger Institute writes in The Anatomy of Peace, “Whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
Brutalist methods will not rebuild social peace. This is not a call to accept mandates, but such mandates can be opposed without blaming the small business owners who are victimized just as much as we are.
Tucker writes, “The bigger point of human liberty… is not to make the world more divided and miserable but to enable human flourishing in peace and prosperity.” For the humanist, the not so easy challenge is to oppose without dividing.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is senior contributor at Intellectual Takeout and the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.