Archive for January, 2011

MACHAN’S ARCHIVES: DEREGULATION IS A MORAL ISSUE

MACHAN ARCHIVES: DEREGULATION IS A MORAL ISSUE*

Tibor R. Machan

There have been plenty of studies, economic analyses and investigations and related work showing that government regulation is harmful, stifling, inefficient, and otherwise destructive. Despite this, the actual regulatory onslaught continues full force, and more is to be expected. Why is this so?
The research has shown that the regulation rarely achieves the goals set for it by Congress. Studies indicate that it has undermined productivity and competition and increased political favoritism and corruption. Market failures or imperfections, so called, have not been eliminated by way of government regulation. Why do millions still continue to believe in the desirability of this discredited system?
Even those few prominent individuals who have come to doubt that regulation is useful consider it a proper function of government where it can achieve its goals. Many more believe that even where government regulation has proven to be ineffective and harmful, the task is simply to muster up greater effort, to “clean up” the agencies, to tighten regulatory specifications—never to abandon the task. In an article in Commentary Magazine several years ago, Paul H. Weaver points out that Americans overwhelmingly support “the full range of present-day public programs to which [the New Deal] has given birth. Indeed, something like half the population would like to see the government provide even more benefits and intervene in more areas of social life than it already does…. Yet by almost equally large margins, Americans also say that the institutions responsible for creating and running the New Deal state are currently in the hands of liars, cheats, frauds, and profligates.” Never mind that economists and social scientists have produced an enormous body of evidence that discredits the very activity of regulating!

Why More Regulation?
Some solutions have been offered to the resulting puzzle about the persistent belief in regulation’s desirability. Since it is mostly economists who study regulatory activity, they are also the ones interested in why their studies fail to alter policy. The explanation usually offered is that regulation has not been discontinued because the legislators and regulatory bureaucrats are like all other people- they work to benefit themselves. It’s self-interest that accounts for the continuation of regulatory activities.
This explanation, however, is vacuous. We can’t get anything from it, any more than we can from an explanation of animal behavior by reference to instincts. It doesn’t explain anything. Why do cats swim in water? Well, they have the instinct to swim in water. What does that mean? It means simply that if you throw them in water they will swim. Why do regulators continue with regulation? Well, because they carry out their regulatory schemes. This is not at all enlightening.
Of course, this misrepresents the complexity of the theory that underlies such explanations. But instead of dwelling on this here, let’s consider an alternative explanation.
People often act as they do because they are guided by certain ideas and ideals. Ideas have consequences! And many of the central ideas guiding people in their personal conduct are moral or ethical ideas. Ralph Nader, for example, often makes reference to justice. He insists that it is unjust not to prevent product failures. He insists that certain people are being victimized. He argues that certain kinds of corporate activities are evil. Freely using these concepts to explain political and economic affairs, he reflects the views of many in our culture.
These kinds of ideas and ideals are powerful guidelines and motivators of human action. And there is something distinctive about moral or ethical ideals–as opposed to, say, scientific, technological, or legal ideas–as principles of human action.
A moral idea (and idea and ideal are interchangeable here) is one that provides guidelines to human beings simply as human beings. Why should I be honest? Because by their very nature human beings as such ought to be honest. Why should I be just? Because human beings as such should be just; if an action, policy, or entire institution recommends itself on the grounds that it is just, any human being in the community should support it.

Moral Reasons
This is very different from offering an economic explanation for what I do. “It paid well” is not comparable to “It was the just thing to do.” Nor is it the same as referring to my preferences. Why did I select that ice cream) Well, I prefer it. That I selected it or that I prefer it does not imply that everyone should do the same thing.
Why then is government regulatory activity continued? Because, despite what economists and many others have demonstrated, people believe that the goals that regulation aims to accomplish are just goals; they are morally justifiable goals to strive for. A person who believes that to defend his community or to educate his children is a matter of justice is not likely to be moved- and, if his belief is correct, he shouldn’t be moved- by the fact that these will be very expensive. He will say: “I’m sorry. Those sacrifices are justified because this is a moral goal; it is one’s duty to do it.
We can talk endlessly to Mr. Nader and Co. about how costly and inefficient government regulation is. If he believes that the goals are morally superior to the other goals that have to be sacrificed so as to pursue them, he will insist that economic concerns can be discounted. This view has been voiced by David Ferber, solicitor with the SEC, in a reply to free market economist Henry Manne, both writing in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Commenting on the regulations imposed by the SEC, Ferber observed, “Since I believe Congress was attempting to improve the morality of the marketplace, I think that the economic effect is largely irrelevant.” Edwin M. Zimmerman, assistant attorney general with the antitrust division of the Justice Department, made the same point in his essay in Promoting Competition, a Brookings Institution volume. He denies that economic efficiency was ever the impetus for regulatory laws.
Plainly put, many who support regulation believe this to be the correct way to try to achieve valued goals. They are dead serious about this. And if they are right, they are also on target when they counter that objection based on inefficiency and high cost are trivial, if not outright callus.
So moral ideas are important in this area, so important that there are some who even feign moral reasons for supporting government regulation. When lobbyists and corporate executives appear before Congress and ask for handouts or subsidies or tariffs, often the bottom line is that these would be in the public interest, the public good, rhe national destiny- or for God and country, as the old saying goes. Those are usually ornaments for shortcuts on the marketplace. But unless people took such ideas seriously, those asking for favors would not bother even to mention them. These are crucial moral terms that count. There are enough people everywhere motivated by just such moral ideas.
Can anyone doubt, then, that deregulatory policies would also require moral support? It’s not enough to say, “Well, regulation costs too much and it’s inefficient.” An alternative moral perspective is needed to conclusively establish the propriety of deregulation. Economic arguments alone do not suffice. But is there anything in the way of ethics that might support deregulation?
If we look at prominent and widely articulated beliefs about what is right and wrong, we find that altruism is pervasive. Altruism literally means “otherorientedness.” This morality is a sort of grab bag for all the various moral systems the bottom line of which is that one’s life must be led so as to secure the welfare of others, either today or tomorrow. It is the view that every person’s prime purpose is to live for others—humanity, one’s country, and one’s race. There are variations on this view, but they all come to this.

Just Helping Out
When made to apply to political policy, the altruist ethic implies that government must try at all costs to achieve the goal of helping people, however bungling, inefficient, or otherwise objectionable such efforts might be. In a debate in an old issue of Analog magazine (April I975), we find this attitude well illustrated in the words of Alan E. Nourse, a fervent defender of national health insurance. He tells us that it is “not a new concept nor is it a particularly efficient concept as far as health care delivery is concerned, because many many precious dollars will be dribbled away to administration.”
Does this suffice to dissuade Mr. Nourse? Do such economic considerations lead to the conclusion that national health insurance is a bad idea? No, counters Nourse, because “‘it is a concept that might—repeat might—meet some of the desperate health care needs that exist today.” If the primary responsibility of government is to engage in helping other people, then trying, even in the face of evidence that it will not do any good, is quite justifiable. People who share those values will simply continue in the face of disastrous performance records.
But we need to consider whether altruism is really the system that should guide us in our lives. The question is not whether certain of our virtues are other-oriented, nor whether in certain circumstances we are obligated to look out for others. The question is whether we are to live our lives primarily for other people.
In a few paragraphs, all the issues involved cannot be covered. There is one interesting point to be raised against altruism, however. Why is it that everyone deserves this prime consideration from others, but not from themselves? Why is it supposed to be this daisy chain of my doing benefit to you, your doing benefit to him, his doing benefit to her, etc.? It clearly engenders meddlesomeness in human affairs. It invites more rigorous attention to other people’s circumstances than to one’s own; because if one is first morally obligated to benefit other people, then their circumstances, their needs, their aspirations, and their wishes must be known. One must obtain the maximum amount of information about those people, and one must do everything possible to find out what will indeed benefit them.
This explains why there is such widespread government information-intrusion in people’s lives. Government, too, must know about others in order to help others. It must be able to walk into private homes, for example, to make sure that welfare recipients get the right care. It is its obligation, according to altruism.
Although altruism claims that individuals should live their lives so as to benefit others but not primarily to benefit themselves, they would, just on the face of it, seem to know much more about themselves to start with. So if people do deserve a lot, why is it that others should do it for them as opposed to their doing it for themselves? This is a puzzle, and it’s worth considering. But let’s leave aside the full criticism that could be offered against altruism and take up as an alternative moral theory that, not surprisingly, is going to be called ethical egoism.

Self-Help
Now ethical egoism—in ancient Greek moral philosophy known as eudemonism—is not egotism which is an excessive concern with one’s image or at least with one’s reputation or power. Ethical egoism, in contrast, is a rational concern with one’s own bona fide happiness. It holds that every human being’s prime moral purpose in living is to achieve happiness in life- the fulfillment, throughout one’s life, of one’s potential as a human being. Happiness is the result of excellence at being human. Here, a person’s primary responsibility is not to do good for others, although it may still be true that on many occasions human beings should do what is good for others. The primary moral responsibility of individuals is to achieve their own happiness in life.
So we have an alternative ethics. Is it possible, in terms of this ethics, that in the process of regulating our commercial and many other activities, government is violating certain moral and political principles?
Government regulation usually involves the following. Some activity by some commercial agents, manufacturers, or industrialists might be of harm to someone who is going to buy their product. If it is possible- just barely possible—that these activities will produce some harm to others, the activity is prohibited or regulated. As Senator Javits once put it in a personal communication on the subject of vitamin C, the government must protect citizens against potential possible hazard.
Now watch those qualifiers: potential, possible hazards. Even a hazard is only a possible harm. A hazard doesn’t guarantee harm. A lot of people have hazardous jobs, meaning that the likelihood of getting hurt in those jobs is considerable. Now imagine a possible hazard. What then is a potentially possible hazard? To be safe in life from “potentially possible hazards,” one must be protected in everything.
If, however, one’s primary obligation in life is to achieve happiness, and if one shares this obligation with other people- so that they should achieve their happiness- then, what must first of all be protected and preserved in a social context are the conditions that make it possible for people to strive for or to pursue their happiness. For example, the Declaration of Independence refers to the protection and preservation of rights we have as human beings—the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If these were indeed rights that we have and that ought to be protected, then in the pursuit of our happiness, someone else’s interference would be wrong, morally wrong. Not just inefficient and very costly, but morally wrong—wrong because human beings should not act that way. In most of the criminal law this point is observed carefnlly, even if not fully consistently. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution-those who believe they have reason to impose burdens on citizens. Unfortunately, the same principle goes by the wayside when it comes to administering government regulations. If members of an industry, profession, or trade engage in “potentially possible hazardous” activities, there are now legal grounds for placing heavy burdens upon them.

A Risky Business
The most persuasive argument in support of this practice involves what Ralph Nader never tires of citing the famous thalidomide case. Many European women took the drug during pregnancy but the FDA barred its distribution in the United States. It had tragic results in Europe; but in America, almost no one was hurt from the drug. Nader constantly remarks this upon, in his numerous talks and essays in support of federal regulation of the food and drug industry.
Now it is clear that if guaranteed safety is the highest value we should aim for in life, then Mr. Nader and Co. are on the right track. If it is our prime duty to make certain that other people are safe, then we should never profit from nor allow others to profit from selling them some goods or services that just might be hazardous. But if freedom to seek our own well-being, the political and economic liberty to make our own way in life, is the highest political good, then even the tragic events associated with the thalidomide case do not suffice to give support to government regulation.
Life is undoubtedly a risky business. Those who want to accept risks may not be prevented from doing so regardless of how convinced we are that they are foolish to take these risks. We may not prevent mountain climbers, auto racers, horseback riders, firefighters, and even plain, ordinary consumers of voluntarily acquired drugs and foods from doing what they have chosen to do. Nor may we gather into majorities and legislate these wise prohibitions for them.
We can, however, point out how life can be made safer! Hazards can be overcome in a free society, even when other people pose them by their sloppiness, negligence, greed, or stupidity. Government regulations preempt a crucial human virtue: the willingness of industrialists, manufacturers, professionals, to do well at whatthey have promised themselves to do well-their jobs. By usurping the field of morality, by forbidding the risky business of people’s developing themselves and getting on in society through mutual self-development, government regulation is a gross denigration of human dignity itself.
Altruism is the main moral game in town. The only place it is not advocated very much is in psychotherapy sessions and books on self-help therapy, because in these areas people have come to face up to the debilitating consequences of living by such a moral point of view. Entire political institutions, however, are built on the doctrine of altruism. Among these, governmental regulation of people’s productive, trading, or consuming activities is just one. Others include all the victimless crime laws, “blue laws,” involuntary mental hospitalization statutes; and the list could go on.
But altruism is a view that does not prepare one for coping with life on earth. It stifles personal growth, ambition, self-development; and it encourages deceit. We must claim that everything we want to do will be good for others, just so we can “get away with doing it.” And it also gives perfect excuses for our failures- “I did it for you. I lied, killed, maimed, stole, and cheated only because I meant well for you.”

Stopping Meddling
Without affirming, with utmost confidence, the alternative moral position—so that each person can realize that the prime moral goal in life is to excel as a person, to become the best one can become in life, given one’s human nature and one’s personal potentials as an individual human being-the case for stopping all this meddling in people’s lives cannot be made conclusively. Sure, governmental regulation is inefficient, devours our income, breeds corruption, centralizes enormous power, stifles production, leaves people overburdened with bureaucratic trivia; but if its goals are morally superior to others, so what? We must be heroic; we must sacrifice for the great good that we might- “repeat might”—achieve. We must toss aside this materialist concern for efficiency, thrift, and prudence. We must march on the noble trail of doing good for our fellow human beings, whether they want it or not.
If, however, we should aspire to our own happiness, if this is our primary moral task, then others should abstain from interfering with us; then regulation is not just uneconomic, but wrong. Government regulation violates our rights—period. And we have those rights because it is we, individually and in voluntary cooperation, who should strive to live, produce, trade, and consume, Only by realizing that this is a matter of profound moral truth- not merely of convenience, efficiency, cost, or pleasure (although not without rewards in these respects)—can we overcome the intellectual and basic moral force of the case for regulation.
That will not lead to instant deregulation. But it will have robbed the meddlers of their most potent weapon—the appeal to people’s frequent, even if not fully consistent, concern for doing what is right in personal and political matters. Even the famous Nobel Laureate (Princeton University) economist and columnist for The New York Times has come to see that the case for interventionism needs moral backing, so he has gone out of his way—in The New York Times (January 14, 2011)—to present what he takes to be such backing. (That he doesn’t succeed because no moral case can rely on coercion—men and women must freely choose to do the right thing for it to have moral significance.**)

Notes:

* This essay is based on Tibor R. Machan, “Deregulation is a Moral Issue,” in Ellen F. Paul and Philip A. Russo, Jr., Public Policy, Issues, Analysis, and Ideology (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, Inc., 1982)
**See my discussion of this point at http://tibormachan rationalreview.com/2011/01/column-on-krugmans-incoherent-moral-stance/

Column on Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Tibor R. Machan

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it. (Don’t know if he believes we own things we haven’t earned, such as our kidneys or eyes! Maybe he thinks that as with earned resources, these unearned ones, especially, belong to the government which can proceed to distribute them just as Krugman thinks it can redistribute the resources citizens have actually come by through hard work, ingenuity, luck and the like.) Let’s see then whether Kurgman’s moral stance has any chance of being sound. Is it the morality by which people ought to guide their conduct in their lives? Do we and what we own belong to government to do with as government officials believe? But isn’t that slavery?

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense.

So when we take even a cursory look at Professor Krugman’s position, it turns out to be incoherent, rank nonsense. It reminds me of the remark attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” So we all belong to government but then to whom does government belong?

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin.

Now we have, in 21st century America, one of the most prominent commentators and educators reiterate this horrendous outlook. Incredible. But it gets even worse.

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

So Krugman’s moral stance is not only incoherent but it isn’t even a moral stance. So much for the “morality” of one of America’s foremost public philosophers.

What someone like Dr. Krugman could more fruitfully do is urge people to be generous toward those in need, to give support to worthy causes, to help the poor, etc., but always of their own free will. That is what moral leaders may do, nothing else. Whether the morality they advocate is sound is another matter. But to remain something morally relevant it must not be imposed. Elementary, Dr. Krugman, really.

Column on An Extremist, and Proud of it

An Extremist and Proud of it

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I am that for sure, an extremist. I am totally against taxes, consider them extortion. I think all government regulations are vile, cases of prior restraint and thus unjust. I think a government has only the function assigned to it in the Declaration of Independence, namely, to protect our rights.

I knew I was an extremist from the time Barry Goldwater announced that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That’s because an extremist is just someone who holds a set of positions that is internally consistent, uncompromising, and demands full integrity.

Of course, once you enter the political fray, it is pointless to be all these things except in how you identify and hold your political position. In the political philosophy one is convinced is sound, everyone ought to be an extremist, even a politician, but in one’s strategies for realizing one’s principles in public policy it is quite all right to be practical, pragmatic, or prudent. This extremism is a matter of holding certain views, not in throwing bombs or murdering one’s adversaries.

Politics takes place among thousands and thousands of people and many of them have agendas very different from one’s own. To make any headway at all in the direction of the policies that would help realize one’s political philosophy, at least to some degree, one cannot simply hold out for the vote that will agree with that philosophy. Here is where compromise is required but never in watering down one’s ideals.

It is mostly those whose views are wishy-washy but who do like to wield power who promote the idea that compromise in how one thinks about issues is necessary, even honorable. But that is false. The world does not conform to a compromised position on anything–it is a consistent system of facts disallowing any inconsistencies or contradictions as possibly true. But the sociology of politics does make compromises useful, provided one never forgets the goals that are being served by it. In and of themselves compromises are worthless–they are in fact evidence of incoherence. But as means to get closer to one’s objectives when inescapably working with a lot of folks who hold drastically different views they have merit.

Extremists are folks who stick to their guns as a matter of principle and integrity but they aren’t prevented by this from making headway through the give and take of politics. A good case in point would appear to be Representative Ron Paul. Dr. No, as he is often called, holds to his principles unwaveringly but he does have the skills of a politician to make progress toward his goals in the midst of colleagues with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye.

Those who defend the idea that a politician must not be principled, must not hold to fundamentally coherent ideas, are hoping that they will make headway with their own ideas while their opponents wobble. Some issues, especially, aren’t about how much or how little should be done but about whether certain objectives are even permissible in a free country. Abolitionists knew about this well and while many were willing to politic about various measures that more or less promoted abolition, they never caved in on the idea that blacks were human and thus had all the same basic rights that human beings have. Maybe this involved taking two steps ahead and one backwards but they knew that all in all there was no warrant for compromising their fundamental position.

Of course there can be a point beyond which no negotiations with opponents is tolerable. One could give away the ball game by going along with certain means so as to attain the necessary goals. At that point one may simply need to withdraw and wait for a more opportune time to press one’s cause.

All of this takes intelligence, discretion, even some special talent and not everyone can do the job well–e.g., some have temperaments that simply don’t suit the machinations of politics. The division of labor applies here as elsewhere. The basic point is that one can be an extremist, a principled advocate of a position, and also be smart and skilled about how to make advances toward its implementation. And those who observe such people need to make sure that they aren’t protesting when such smarts are being displayed and mistake it for having compromised political-economic principles.

Column on It’s A Massacre, Stupid

It’s a Massacre, Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

What happened in Tucson, AZ, was a massacre and not a tragedy. Perhaps some view this a pedantic detail but it isn’t–words do have meaning and a tragedy, as anyone familiar with ancient Greek literature or a bit of Shakespeare will testify, takes place when bad outcomes come from what good people are forced to decide. They are a peculiar moral phenomenon. A massacre isn’t morally peculiar but plainly, straightforwardly evil. To execute a bunch of people who haven’t been convicted within a system of due process and when the executioner isn’t properly authorized to act as the agent of punishment for crimes is no tragedy. It is a vicious crime.

Having said that, please let me reflect a bit on all those who are scapegoating now by assigning blame for the massacre not to the actual perpetrator but to something, anything, they don’t like in the world. Accordingly, you will find the likes of Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and any number of opportunists in Congress point the figure at the heated rhetoric that emerges from those in public forums who are often passionate and polemical about their political convictions. No doubt, some of these folks can go too far with labeling their opponents, unreasonably ascribing motives to them, indicting them for the likely adverse consequences of the policies they promote. That’s what happens when a lot is at stake–even the most civilized among us will tend to resort to hyperbole.

But words are not guns. Even the law, always only a questionable clue to what is and what is not moral or ethical, acknowledges that there are only a few fighting words. These are those rare case of speech that do not get the protection of the principle embodied in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution because they are deemed to be too offensive and provocative for civilized discourse. But fighting words are few. And heated political rhetoric does not qualify.

These scapegoat mongers–who, by the way, quite often excuse wrong doing on the grounds that people just cannot help how they act, that their socio-economic circumstances force them to do the vicious things they do–aren’t really concerned about properly fixing blame or responsibility for events like those that transpired in Tucson but are more likely hoping to score political points. So Sarah Palin likes to shoot big game and you find her politics objectionable, maybe what you can do is associate her with any kind of shooting, never mind the target. Or if those talk show hosts on radio and TV–for instance, Keith, Beck, and Rush–indulge in some fancy verbiage so as to drive home a point, lets treat what they say as if it amounted to fighting words, as if they could cause people to act criminally. By suggesting this one may succeed in besmirching one’s favorite political adversaries–or one could at least for a moment win over to one’s side the people who are too desperate to make sense of events that are overwhelming and for which no ready explanation is available to them.

This is dirty pool. Yet it should not be banned, any more than the rhetoric being indicted should be (as, sadly, some people are proposing). Curbing the heated rhetoric, as such censorship is euphoniously referred to, isn’t going to reduce the number of villains among us–they don’t need to be enticed; they have their warped imagination guiding them to do what is unacceptable in civilized society.

Even if one could show that a perpetrator of a massacre such as occurred in Tucson did hold a particular ideology or religion by which one might govern one’s behavior, that ideology or religion can never be held fully responsible for the ensuing conduct. That is one thing that’s wrong with holding radical Islam responsible for terrorism or Roman Catholicism for the Inquisition! All ideas must be filtered through the minds of the human agents who may make use of them. And these human agents are supposed to be reasonable enough to restrain themselves however passionately they may feel.

Column on Somerset Maugham and I

Somerset Maugham & I

Tibor R. Machan

My most enjoyable and rewarding reading time has been with W. Somerset Maugham. Even the works that annoy me are a pleasure to read, not to mention the many very entertaining books, short stories and essays he has penned that are dear to me.

What it is about Maugham I am not entirely sure–I pretty much just bathe in the enjoyment without doing much analysis of why it happens. But there are a couple of things about his writing that agree with me thoroughly.

One is that nearly every sentence is superbly crafted so it is suitable for those like me who are slow readers. Even if I get to read but a couple of pages just before falling asleep or being called by the dentists or doctor after waiting for the exam, sentence after sentence appeals to me. Sometimes I want to shout out my praise for him but, sadly, he has been dead for several decades now.

Some of his books contain a good collection of brief observations but they are nearly always keen ones. Here is one where he chimes in with something in my own field of philosophy:

“Looking for the special function of man Aristotle decided that since he shares growth with the plants and perception with the beasts, and alone has a rational element, his function is the activity of the soul. From this he concluded, not as you would have thought sensible, that man should cultivate the three forms of activity which he as­cribes to him, but that he should pursue only that which is especial to him. Philosophers and moralists have looked at the body with misgivings. They have pointed out that its satisfactions are brief. But a pleasure is nonetheless a pleasure because it does not please forever.” [The Summing Up (Pocket Books, 1967), pp. 35-6]

Right on, I say, even though the author isn’t some highfalutin Aristotle scholar. And there is this pithy comment I tucked away in my growing collection of worthy quotes:

“… finally science had not fulfilled the promises which the unwise expected, and, dissatisfied at not receiving answers to questions that science never pretended to answer, many threw themselves into the arms of the Church.”

And there is this bitty from his rare but poignant political observations:

“If a nation or an individual values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony is that if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too.”

Cannot argue with that–both reason (theory) and experience (history) bear it out.

OK, so I have given just a couple of samples from the vast writing of W. Somerset Maugham to show how appealing he can be. The first of his novels I read was titled Theater and was only a couple of years ago made into a movie starring Annette Bening, Being Julia. His most famous novel, Of Human Bondage–also made into film maybe more than once, directed by John Cromwell and starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Kay Johnson–didn’t sit well with me because its subject matter was a pathetic love affair that pretty much mirrored my own pathetic love affair of the time. But there were many other works, among them the novella, Up At The Villa which was also made into a film by that name, directed by Philip Haas and starting Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn and Anne Bancroft.

I am always conscious of the fact that English is my third language, learned just at the end of my adolescence, and so I am partial to writers who not only entertain me, present fascination or intrigue, but do it impeccably and there-through teach me a thing or two. And Maugham has been the number one example of such writing to me and I am still reading his works–the latest is one of his travel books, full of gems, titled The Gentleman in the Parlor: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong (Armchair Traveler Series).