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Relieving yourself in public is illegal in all states. I guess few readers are surprised to hear this; I also suppose many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this unpleasant subject. But stay with me: there is a moral here, and it is a moral that has ominous implications for the future of our nation.

While we take these restrictions for granted, they can be annoying at times, as anyone walking around after drinking too many cups of coffee can attest. But the downside is insignificant, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know, there are no angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business where they want.

Which brings me to my current topic: pandemic face mask requirements.

Wearing a mask in public, like keeping it in place for a few minutes, is a bit of an inconvenience, but not a major burden. And the case for imposing this slight burden in the event of a pandemic is overwhelming. The coronavirus variants that cause Covid-19 are widely spread by airborne droplets, and wearing masks greatly reduces the spread of the variants.

So not wearing a mask is a reckless act of endangerment, not so much to yourself – although masks seem to offer some protection to the wearer – as it does to other people. Covering our faces while the pandemic lasts would appear to be mere good citizenship, not to mention an act of basic human decency.

Yet Texas and Mississippi just ended their statewide mask requirements.

President Biden criticized the measures, accusing Republican state leaders of “Neanderthal thinking.” But it’s probably unfair – to Neanderthals. We don’t know much about our missing hominid relatives, but we have no reason to believe that their political scene, if they had one, was dominated by the mixture of meanness and pettiness that now rules American conservatism. .

Let’s start with the objective realities.

We have made a lot of progress against the pandemic in the past two months. But the danger is far from over. There are still many more Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 now than there were, say, last June, when many states were rushing to reopen and Mike Pence, the then vice president. , assured us that there would be no second wave. About 400,000 deaths later, we know how it worked.

It is true that there is now a bright light at the end of the tunnel: The development of effective vaccines has been miraculously rapid, and the actual pace of vaccinations is accelerating rapidly. But this good news should make us more willing, not less, to endure the inconvenience now: at this point we are only talking about a few more months of vigilance, not a long work with no end in sight.

And reducing infections over the next few months will also help rule out a possible epidemiological nightmare, in which new vaccine-resistant variants will evolve before we get the existing variants under control.

So what drives the rush to unmask? It is not economics. Like I said, the cost of wearing a mask is insignificant. And basic economics tells us that people should be encouraged to consider the costs that they impose on others; if potentially exposing those you meet to fatal disease isn’t an “externality,” I don’t know what it is.

Furthermore, a resurgent pandemic would do more to hurt growth and job creation in Texas and elsewhere than almost anything I can think of.

Of course, we know what’s really going on here: politics. Refusing to wear a mask has become a political badge of identity, a bare statement that you reject liberal values ​​like civic responsibility and belief in science. (These weren’t liberal values, but they are in America 2021.)

This medical version of identity politics seems to trump everything up to and including belief in the sacred rights of landowners. When the organizers of the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks – not out of politics, but simply to comply with the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting – they were greeted with hoots and boos. cries of “Freedom!” Do people shout about their rights when they see a store sign saying “No shoes, no shirt, no service”?

But we should probably not be surprised. Nowadays, the Conservatives don’t seem to care except identity politics, often expressed on the meanest of issues. Democrats appear to be on the verge of enacting a massive relief bill that embodies many progressive political priorities. But the Republican response has been remarkably low in energy, and the right-wing media is obsessed with the (falsely) alleged plot to make Mr. Potato Head neutral.

Unfortunately, identity politics can do a lot of harm when it prevents real problems from being solved. I don’t know how many people will needlessly die because the governor of Texas has decided that ignoring the science and ending the mask requirement is a good way to own libraries. But the number will not be zero.

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