About a month ago, a former bodybuilder and actor by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger went after coronavirus vaccine and mask skeptics — hard. He attacked them for focusing so strongly on their own personal freedom.

“No, screw your freedom,” Schwarzenegger said. “Because with freedom comes obligations and responsibilities.”

It was a classic case of an excessively blunt sound bite obscuring the broader point. Schwarzenegger emphasized later, after losing a sponsor for his bodybuilding competition, that he meant such freedoms must be measured against the greater good — not that he was anti-freedom, per se.

The lessons of that flap wouldn’t seem to have been learned by the Biden White House.

President Biden delivered a speech last week that cheered those who have agitated for a tougher approach to the unvaccinated. In the course of a tough-love speech announcing a vaccination and testing mandate for large employers, though, Biden decided to weigh into the freedom debate in a rather unvarnished, Schwarzenegger-ian manner.

“This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you — the people you work with, the people you care about, the people you love.”

After initially touting coronavirus vaccines and mask mandates, some GOP governors are now shying away from pandemic mandates. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

It was more eloquent than Schwarzenegger’s missive. But like its predecessor, it ceded the freedom argument in an unnecessary way.

Biden’s comment was instant fodder for critics of the policy, who quoted him with gusto. The quote ran repeatedly on Fox News and was tweeted incessantly by GOP critics of his policy.

The fact that Biden is being attacked for this doesn’t inherently mean it was a bad idea. Biden’s point was similar to Schwarzenegger’s, in that he sought to argue that sacrifices are necessary in the name of fighting a pandemic that has, after all, killed more than 600,000 Americans. A Republican president and conservative lawmakers made similar-if-less-blunt requests 20 years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11. Freedoms are rarely absolute, and this is a constant tension in a liberal democracy. To pretend otherwise is to throw wool over one’s eyes.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about such things in a more deft manner, while acknowledging that very real tension.

The New York Times’s David Leonhardt crystallized this over the weekend during an appearance on CNN. After a clip played of conservative critics deriding Biden’s supposed assault on freedom, Leonhardt noted that there’s more than one definition of freedom, and it’s not just about “do whatever I want.”

I’ll post his comments extensively:

There are two ways to think about freedom, right? One is, does someone have the freedom not to get a vaccine shot? That’s a legitimate question. The other is, do we as Americans have the freedom to go out and know that we are less vulnerable to a deadly virus? That is also a form of freedom.
And that’s why I think that the sort of pro-freedom case for vaccine mandates is actually stronger than the anti-freedom case. Americans deserve the freedom to go to school without fear, they deserve to have the freedom to go to school without health risks, they deserve the ability to go to football games and go to Broadway plays.

In other words, the freedoms of those who would refuse vaccines or decline to wear masks when exercised, in effect, impinge on the freedoms of others.

This is a well-trodden area of political theory. It’s the difference between so-called “positive freedom” or liberty — that is, the government giving us the freedom to choose a course of action — and “negative freedom” or liberty — which is the absence of obstacles or barriers, which might be erected by others exercising their own freedoms.

Political theorist Isaiah Berlin reflected upon the difference in 1958 in “The Two Concepts of Liberty.” He described the difference as being between “the freedom which consists in being one’s own master, and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men.”

Berlin noted that political philosophers have long said that freedom “could not, as things were, be unlimited, because if it were, it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men.”

The Post’s Philip Bump had a very worthwhile reflection on much of this in a piece last week about what it means to be an American, in the context of fighting the pandemic. But apart from that, Leonhardt’s commentary and a few scattered mentions, the concept that fighting the pandemic via governmental regulations might actually aid freedom has been largely and puzzlingly missing from the debate over Biden’s new policy.

And that’s despite the White House seemingly cuing this up as its argument.

Starting in early June, when the coronavirus had fallen away as vaccinations surged, Biden and the White House spoke approvingly about the “Summer of Freedom” that lay ahead. People’s choices to get vaccinated were enabling them to live freer lives, they said. And this was to be celebrated.

“America is headed into the summer dramatically different from last year’s summer: a summer of freedom, a summer of joy, a summer of get-togethers and celebrations,” Biden said June 2.

Biden added on June 18: “As I said, we’re heading into, God willing, the summer of joy, a summer of freedom. On July 4, we’re going to celebrate our independence from the virus as we celebrate our independence of our nation. We want everyone — everyone to be able to do that.”

The ability to engage in things that weren’t actually a matter of express governmental prohibitions was hailed as “freedom.” But after the delta variant surged and policies were tightened, that argument has apparently fallen by the wayside.

It’s not the only aspect of the White House’s messaging that has been questionable. The new Biden policy’s critics have been largely able to define this as strictly a vaccine mandate, for instance, when that’s not what it is. It also allows people to get weekly testing, which is much more of a consensus policy.

At least with that, though, there is perhaps a reason to not emphasize that aspect. Vaccination is best when it comes to stomping out the virus, and to the extent this becomes about weekly testing instead, perhaps people are less likely to get vaccinated.

You could make a somewhat similar argument about the official rhetoric on freedom — that what we need now is a 9/11-esque commitment to the greater good, even if it requires sacrificing some of one’s positive freedoms. But even on that count, one could certainly argue that this focus on the greater good leads to greater and more widely exercised freedoms — as the White House once did.

And dismissing the import of freedom in all of it is to play on your critics’ home field, when you could just as easily fight this on a more neutral site.