July 17, 2020 - 7:00am

Why make everyone wear masks β€” even people who are the least likely to spread the disease? (Read Paul Embery’s case against compulsion, here).

Well, when it comes to R, every little bit helps β€” but, more importantly, the general rule creates a social norm. This makes it much harder for those who are most likely to infect others β€” “super-spreaders” β€” not to wear a mask. In other words, collective action has an impact over-and-above the sum of the individual actions.

Mask wearing is far from the only example. I’m old enough to remember when, in 1983, seatbelt wearing became compulsory for drivers in the UK. There were those who bitterly resented the new law β€” and, later, the requirement for passengers to buckle-up too. But there’s no doubt that compulsion worked β€” and not just because people feared being caught. It was the creation of a social norm and reinforcement of habit that did the trick.

Ditto the rules against smoking in various indoor environments. In theory, non-smokers had the option to answer “yes” to the most insincere question in the English language β€” i.e. “do you mind if I smoke?” But, even when asked, they rarely did, because that would have been awkward.

Luckily the law came to the rescue. The ‘right’ of smokers to fill other people’s lungs with carcinogenic gases was curbed. It didn’t require police officers in every train carriage and pub to enforce the law β€” the shift in cultural dynamics did most of the job.

There was a time when territory was still contested. On public transport, I remember the diehard smokers who insisted on lighting-up β€” leading to confrontations with other passengers. The former were usually men, the latter usually women. These heroines would be dismissed as “Karens” today, but thank God for them β€” they won us the battle for clean air.

They did so because they were empowered by the rules. A simple, straightforward ordinance that left no room for doubt was just what was needed. The self-serving excuses β€” “I’ve almost finished it”, “I’ve got a window open”, “the smoking carriage was full” β€” were rendered null-and-void.

Our is an individualistic society. In many cases, leaving people free to exercise their personal judgement β€” and take responsibility for their actions β€” is a good thing. But, in others, it manifestly isn’t. For instance, some people are better drivers than others β€” but they still need to observe the same speed limits. A system of self-assessment would allow the worst people to make the stupidest decisions β€” to the detriment of all.

Sometimes, we just need to put our individuality aside. Indeed, those most capable of exercising their personal judgement have a special duty to set an example and stick to a shared standard. That too is taking responsibility.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.