During a raging pandemic, Americans are caught up in a political battle over masks. Those who oppose mask mandates (and simply wearing masks voluntarily) tend to be on the right; those who accept mask mandates (and wearing masks) tend to be on the left. There are certainly exceptions. One interesting approach to the mask debate by some on the right is to draw an analogy between the mask mandate and the restrictive voting laws that the Republicans have been busy passing. The gist is that if the left opposes the voting laws, then they should oppose mask mandates. Before getting into the details of the argument, let us look at the general form of the analogical argument.
An analogy will typically have two premises and a conclusion. The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.). The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. The form of the argument looks like this:
Premise 1: X and Y have properties P, Q, R.
Premise 2: X has property Z.
Conclusion: Y has property Z.
X and Y are variables that stand for whatever is being compared, such as chimpanzees and humans or apples and oranges. P, Q, R, and are also variables, but they stand for properties or features that X and Y are known to possess, such as having a heart. Z is also a variable, and it stands for the property or feature that X is known to possess. The use of P, Q, and R is just for the sake of the illustration-the things being compared might have more properties in common.
One simplified way to present the anti-mask mandate analogy is as follows:
Premise 1: Mask mandates and restrictive voting laws are similar in many ways.
Premise 2: Restrictive voting laws are opposed by the left.
Conclusion: Mask mandates should also be opposed by the left.
While this analogy seems appealing to many anti-mask mandate folks, a key issue is whether it is a strong argument. The strength of an analogical argument depends on three factors. To the degree that an analogical argument meets these standards it is a strong argument.
First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. This standard is based on the notion that the more two things are alike in other ways, the more likely it is that they will be alike in some other way. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the stronger the argument. A specific property, for example P, is relevant to property Z if the presence or absence of P affects the likelihood that Z will be present. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. So, is the analogy between the restrictive voter laws and mask mandates strong? To avoid begging the question by making a straw man, I will endeavor to make the best analogy I can—within the limits of truth.
On the face of it, both the mask mandate and the restrictive voting laws are aimed at preventing harm. In the case of the mask mandate, the coercive power of the state is supposed to be used to protect people from the pandemic. In the case of the restrictive voting laws, the coercive power of the state is supposed to protect people from voter fraud. This seems to be an essential and compelling similarity if the state has the right to use its coercive power to protect citizens from harm. As such, if the use of mask mandates is warranted to protect people from the danger of COVID, then the use of restrictive voting laws would be warranted to protect people from the danger of voter fraud. However, further consideration reveals that the analogy fails.
One critical relevant difference is that the number of COVID cases (and deaths) in the United States is huge, while the number of cases of voter (or election) fraud is vanishingly small. As this is being written, my adopted state of Florida has had 3.25 million COVID cases and 44,561 deaths. The United States has had an estimated 40,257,145 cases of COVID and 659,533 deaths. In contrast, there have been about 16 charged cases of voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential election. In some cases, these charges arise from absurd efforts, such as a person who voted and asked if he could vote for his son. When told he could not, he returned and attempted to impersonate his son. This effort was thwarted and he now faces felony charges. One could attempt to address this by providing evidence that voter/election fraud is widespread and pervasive enough to warrant the comparison to COVID. Alternatively, one could argue that COVID cases are massively overblown and hence the number is small enough to warrant the comparison to voter fraud. But there is no evidence for either: COVID is widespread and voter fraud barely exists.
The level of risk is important in determining if the use of coercive power is warranted. If an illness arose that only infected 16 people, then it would be absurd for the state to use its power to impose mask mandates. The level of threat would not warrant such an imposition. Naturally, if there were millions of cases of voter fraud, then the state would be warranted in acting: that would be a serious threat.
Another important difference is the severity of the harm. COVID has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States. Voter fraud had no meaningful impact on the 2020 election and all efforts on the part of Trump and his supporters have failed repeatedly to reveal evidence to the contrary. Mike Lindell, the My Pillow Guy, exemplifies the bizarre absurdity of the conspiracy theory about voter/election fraud. One could attempt to address this by providing evidence that voter/election fraud is harmful enough to warrant the comparison to COVID. Alternatively, one could argue that the danger of COVID is grossly exaggerated and thus warrant the comparison to voter fraud. But there is no evidence for either: COVID is filling the hospitals again and the 16 charged cases of voter fraud had no effect on the outcome of the election.
Another relevant difference is the effectiveness of the measures. Justifying the use of the coercive power of the state requires showing that this use is effective in addressing the harm. To compel people and produce no benefit would be a failure on the part of the state. While masks are not magical armor against COVID, they do provide a meaningful level of protection when used correctly. In contrast, the restrictive laws the Republicans passed do not seem to have any relevance to preventing fraud (which barely exists). For example, even Lindsey Graham admitted that the law preventing voters from receiving food and water while waiting in line does not make ‘a whole lot of sense.’ One could attempt to address this by providing evidence that the laws are effective at prevent fraud and so warrant the comparison to mask mandates. Alternatively, one could argue that the effectiveness of masks is grossly exaggerated and thus warrant the comparison. But there is no evidence for either: masks seem effective while the voter restrictions are not. Given this evaluation, the analogy is weak and thus does not help the anti-mask mandate case. Interestingly, the analogy would be a problem for people who are anti-mandate but pro voter restriction.
There are other relevant differences as well, such as voting being a foundational right that should be protected rather than restricted and being allowed to freely infect people during a pandemic is not a right and masks are barely an inconvenience.
If we do accept that mask mandates and voter restricting laws are analogous and it is assumed that the laws are warranted because they are aimed at addressing a harm that barely exists, then it would follow that mask-mandates are utterly justified. After all, the mandates are aimed at addressing a disease that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands in the United States alone. Alternatively, if one accepts that the mask mandate is unwarranted despite the harms of illness and death, then it would follow (by analogy) that the restrictive voting laws are utterly unwarranted since they impose great restrictions to (allegedly) address a harm that barely exists. But this assessment will have little impact: the comparison being made seems to be mostly made in bad faith for rhetorical purposes rather than being a well-considered argument based on a theory of state coercion.