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Machan's Musings - Columns for Mind Teasing
by 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 might ask?

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 productive.

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.
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