When individuals make decisions, they typically only consider their own benefits and costs. Usually, this approach leads to good outcomes. For instance, when I buy a hamburger, I get a delicious meal, David’s Burgers makes a profit, and no one else is impacted.

The story is different when our decisions hurt others. In these cases, people do activities too often. Smokers ignore second-hand smoke, so they smoke too much. Drunk drivers ignore the risk to others, so they drive too much. Families ignore the increased risk of spreading a disease, so they skip getting their kids vaccinated too often.

There is widespread agreement that these harmful activities should be curtailed or prevented. The government does not just ask people to do the “right thing.” That would never work because people are mostly interested in their own welfare, not the welfare of those they are harming. Instead of merely asking people to do the right thing, the government passes laws to curtail these harmful activities. The government prohibits people from smoking in many public places, it arrests them if they get caught drunk driving, and it prohibits children without shots from attending kindergarten. When people get caught doing any of these harmful activities, they face consequences.

During the current coronavirus pandemic, too many people refuse to wear face masks. By refusing to wear a mask, an infected person becomes five times more likely to spread the virus. People do not consider this cost when they decide to leave their masks at home. As a result, the virus spreads more widely and more people die. The government should require people to wear face masks to prevent them from spreading the disease.

Recently, Conway City Council passed an ordinance in an effort to get people to wear face masks more often. The ordinance does not require customers to wear masks in buildings, rather it lets businesses make their own requirements. If a business decides to require face masks, the police will help them enforce their requirement. However, the police will not force people to wear masks and there is no monetary penalty for refusing to wear one. I have talked to employees at local stores and they have said that they will not ask the police to get involved. The stores do not want to irritate or insult customers, so they let the people shop even if they do not have masks.

The ordinance just relies on people to do the right thing, but this will not work. People will not do the right thing because if they did, we would not have a problem in the first place. If people always did the right thing, there would not be drunk drivers, people smoking around others, or unvaccinated kids. People often choose to act in ways that harm others, and this is why we need the government to get involved. I urge the Conway City Council to impose penalties on people who do not wear masks in grocery stores and in other similar establishments.

People will consider the cost of fines when they make decisions because they pay these fines themselves. The fines will encourage people to wear masks, cut down on the virus’s spread, and save lives. Just as the government imposes penalties when people smoke in public places, drive drunk, and skip getting their kids vaccinations, the council should impose penalties on people who refuse to wear masks in public places.

Joe McGarrity is a professor of

economics at the University of Central Arkansas.

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