Кyle Whitmire@www.al.com: Good luck, America! Alabama’s given up. Gov. Kay Ivey says she doesn’t want to make people wear masks in public, which is ironic since making people do things they don’t like is pretty much the primary function of government. She doesn’t want to be the bad guy. What politician does? But Alabama could use a little less nicety right now.
When I was a young reporter, I had the fortune of meeting a former Alabama lawmaker who had spent his career in Montgomery exposing the ineptitude of his colleagues until they drew him out of his district. In exile from the Legislature, Mac Parsons found an elected office that couldn’t be taken from him — a circuit judgeship in the Bessemer district.
Parsons had the disposition of someone who had lived through a war that had been lost. His stories and his pronouncements were witty and jaded, dry and dark. In his courthouse chambers between trials, I drank a lot of coffee and listened to him do something all those folks he left behind on Goat Hill couldn’t do: Tell truths about Alabama politics.
“All these legislators go down to Montgomery,” Parsons used to say. “They put their hand on a Bible and swear to uphold the Alabama Constitution of 1901 and they hadn’t read either one of them things.”
Parsons had read both and could quote both. I never did, but I learned to recite the wisdom of Mac Parsons. He died about 10 years ago, but every so often something he said wheedles its way into my work.
However, there was this one nugget he shared — I wondered whether it crossed a line. Too cynical, even for me.
“When you think about it,” he said, “government exists to do shitty things to people.”
I recall saying something about social services and safety nets. But that wasn’t what he was trying to get at, and if you got into an argument with Mac, you’d probably lost already.
Rather, what would happen if everyone were on the honor system?
Who would pay taxes if they were optional?
Who would pay child support?
Who would drive safely?
Who would keep their hands off their neighbor’s stuff?
The answer is a lot of people, but not everybody. And those few would screw it up for everybody else.
Government exists to balance individual freedom with the collective good. There are times when government must step in and make people do things they don’t want to do. That’s why we have traffic laws, building codes and zoning ordinances. To some degree, government does this every day, but we don’t notice because we’re accustomed to it.
And we need some more of that right now.
When it comes to wearing masks, Alabama is on the honor system. A lot of people are doing their part, but not everybody. As a result, the coronavirus is not under control and we won’t get it under control unless everyone wears one.
We need government to be the bad guy.
On Tuesday, Gov. Kay Ivey refused to play that role. In a press conference with the state’s health officer, Scott Harris, she said a statewide mask ordinance wouldn’t be effective because enforcement would be too hard.
“You shouldn’t have to order somebody to do what is in your own best interest and that of the folk that you care about, your family, friends and neighbors,” Ivey said.
Speaking to NPR Wednesday, Harris said there is no “appetite” for new public health orders after the stay at home order in the spring.
“We had quite a number of people who were flouting the order,” he said. “We had law enforcement that had stated publicly they were not going to enforce the order. And frankly, it’s very difficult to put health orders in place if they’re going to be flouted.”
Good luck, America! Alabama’s given up.
Ultimately, the trouble with Ivey’s laissez-faire approach and the current “guidelines” (let’s face it — they’re just suggestions) is that it punts enforcement onto businesses. And what business wants to tell its customers they have to do something they don’t want to do? The path of least resistance is to let it slide — and breath by breath give the virus another toehold in our state.
The disease has that toehold now. This approach has not worked and new daily cases are now three times what they were when Ivey began lifting restrictions six weeks ago.
The better option is to good cop/bad cop the problem. Businesses can still handle enforcement, but only with the looming threat of the state shutting them down.
Owners need to be able to tell their customers, “I hate these things, too, and it’s not fair, but if you don’t wear that mask the state is going to shut me down.”
We need government to be the bad guy.
It’s time for Ivey to suck it up and do her job. Same for Harris. Some folks will holler. They’ll call them names and make threats, just as speakers in Mobile did this week when that city enacted its own mask ordinance. They’ll scream about this being a violation of their Constitutional rights, which is nonsense. (If you have a Constitutional right to not wear a mask, then I have a Constitutional right to not wear pants.)
But the alternative is worse — further spread of the disease until we have only worse options, like closing restaurants, bars, churches and schools. And, yes, football stadiums, too.
And who will be the bad guy then?
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group.
You can follow his work on his Facebook page, The War on Dumb. And on Twitter. And on Instagram.