Life, Liberty, and Property

By Daniel Layman, Department of Philosophy

“So, what sort of research do you do?”

Ever since Nicolás* sat down across from me for a late lunch in the sweltering mid-day Havana heat, I had awaited this question with some trepidation. There was nothing to fear in the question itself: As a junior academic, I answer it constantly and, usually, happily.  Rather, I was anxious that afternoon because I did not anticipate a warm response to the reply that I knew honesty required me to offer. My work focuses almost exclusively on interpreting and, in large measure, defending the tradition of Anglo-American liberalism that began to emerge during the early enlightenment and which for almost two centuries now has been subject to trenchant Marxian critique. Since Cuba’s official state ideology is explicitly hostile to this tradition, I expected that Nicolás would greet my ideas with contempt or even anger. He would, I worried, see me as the enemy.

“So, what sort of research do you do?”

With an internal sigh, I came out with it: “I work on Locke’s conception of freedom, especially its implications for market structures and property rights.” Braced as I was for a hostile exchange, Nicolás’s reply caught me off guard: “That’s so interesting! I’ve always considered myself a Jeffersonian. If we Cubans can just throw off the broken model of governance we inherited from the USSR, I think our revolution might come to embody the principles of enlightenment liberalism more than any other society in the world.”

I have to admit that I was initially a little embarrassed: How could I have made assumptions about what this fellow scholar would say based solely on pronouncements by his national government? But however well-deserved it might have been, that embarrassment melted away as our conversation quickly developed into one of the most fruitful and enlightening exchanges I’ve ever had. Nicolás and I were largely on the same page, we soon discovered, about the basic structure of liberty and its relationship to the dignity and equality of individuals. Moreover, we also agreed that markets can threaten that liberty. We disagreed, however, on the role the state should play in securing equal freedom. While I argued for a society based on markets operating against a backdrop of extensive social insurance, Nicolás argued that only public ownership of firms and other capital could do the job. By the time 3:30PM rolled around (yes, lunch runs late in Cuba), I was sad for our conversation to end. I had learned a great deal, and I could have learned much more.

Six people talking at a table with food
Colleagues at lunch

So, what did I gain from my afternoon with Nicolás? Most obviously, I walked away with the insights and reflections one always acquires from a careful and sensitive intellectual debate. But more importantly, I left with a renewed conviction that ideas really can bring us into exciting and rewarding contact with others, and that cultural and ideological divides might not be so wide as we are sometimes inclined to assume.  

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