Columns for Mind Teasing
Tibor R. Machan
What motivates people to write columns? There is no one answer that fits
all columnists?that?s a start of an answer. In my own case there is no one
motive?depends on the day, time, circumstances, my own state of mind, and
probably much I don?t even bother to learn of.
A few things I do know, about why I write columns, involve certain goals.
Among these foremost is the achievement of a world in which freedom is in
greater rather than lesser abundance, the freedom of the individual from
coercive intervention in his or her life. But why bother about this, one
Well, I am convinced, from years of experiencing, thinking about, and
reading or otherwise studying the issue, that such freedom is a
precondition of moral conduct at any level whatsoever. Only free men and
women can choose to do what is right. And this is their first and foremost
task in life, so freedom as a condition of their community lives enhances
this task better than anything else.
Contrary to very popular belief, regimenting, regulating, ordering people
about to do what?s right is not the road to that goal at all. That?s
because choice is indispensable for right conduct. So if one wishes to
strive for a better world, one in which people more often than not do the
right thing, one cannot do much more as a general rule than promote human
liberty. Sure, one can make suggestions, implore people, advocate and
materially support this or that course of conduct, too. And one can and
should, needless to say, guide oneself to act properly. But as a matter of
the common good, championing and fighting for individual liberty is really
the best method.
Yet this is only my primary reason. Another is that I keep my own mind in
shape by writing on innumerable things. For this I need, of course, to
study, to keep up with what is going on in many disciplines. And by doing
all this I also generate discussions between me and those who take some
interest in my topics and how I treat them. This keeps me sharper than I
otherwise would be?use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
There are limits, though, to the value of the exchanges that are
generated from published writing, the main one being that some people
enter the exchange in a mean-minded fashion, wishing not to argue but to
insult and make the writer feel badly. I used to take the bait earlier in
my life but no longer. There is too much to do that?s constructive,
helpful, interesting, and so forth than to waste time on hurling insults
back and forth.
So I have this policy now?if I see an insult in the first few lines of an
email or letter?and even in a book review, when one of mine manages to
prompt one?I toss it. I don?t even continue. Sure, I risk losing some
possibly useful follow-up comments but not likely, I figure, since folks
who resort to insults usually haven?t much else to offer. And there are
lots of civil interlocutors around whom one would like not to ignore while
hassling with the uncivil ones.
In some ways there is benefit to not being a very famous columnist
because this makes it more likely that there is time to answer people who
make interesting, often critical, points in response to the mind-teasers
that short columns necessarily have to be. These missives merely raise
some issue, offer a few arguments and a bit of evidence, and then the rest
has to be worked out in more detail. And that?s OK?the division of labor
applies here as everywhere: Some folks need to do such mind-teasing both
for themselves and as a service, while others best do something else
There is also that motive of aiming to say things in ways that are
succinct yet clear. That?s sort of the artistic part of writing columns, I
believe. Crafting one is not all that simple?structure, form, expression,
language, and the rest all need to be managed reasonably well for the
thing to amount to something of value. And to get there now and then is,
of course, quite satisfying.