All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 2006

The Jewel of Consistency

Mr. DeArmond, salesman, writer, and business consultant on personnel training, is a contributor to numerous periodicals and the author of books such as Executive Thinking and Action and How To Sell and Unsell Ideas.

The acid test is that a man live by the principles he professes to believe.

The strangest thing about this century’s collectivist revolution is the amazing discrepancy between words and actions. In the abstract, men speak with the tongues of angels; in the concrete, their actions are often Mephisto-phelian. If even 51 per cent of those who express stout devotion to liberty and opposition to State socialism had acted and voted as they talked, the revolution would have died a-borning.

Nearly everyone professes loyal devotion to the Constitution—until he starts to translate that devotion into action. “The maximum of local self-government” is an unchallenged adage—until an appropriation is demanded from Washington.

Examples parade in endless procession.

Labor leaders breathe fire and fury on the dangers of business monopoly. Big Business, they say, is erecting a great oligarchy that is crushing free competition and hamstringing our liberties. But in the very next breath they argue passionately that independent unions should be suppressed by law, not permitted to compete with the AFL-CIO. Nor, they add with equal heat, does a dissenting worker have the right to decline union membership.

Not to be outdone in inconsistency, a formidable body of businessmen who oppose government fixing of wages are equally vocal in demanding government fixing of prices. Businessmen have with good reason opposed rigid “parity” price subsidies to farmers, as a form of encroaching socialism. But is “cheap” federal electric power, for which so many businessmen clamor, any less a subsidy than parity payments to farmers? In both cases, the difference between free-market prices and artificial, government-manipulated prices is drawn from the well of public funds that come from taxation. Direct government competition with the electric power industry is a clear invitation to the collectivists to socialize other industries as well as power.

Who has joined in logrolling for federal grants with more zeal than businessmen? Whether to states or communities, whether for airports, highways, street improvements, high dams, new post offices, or aid to education, federal grants are an essential part of the Keynesian policy of Fabian socialism. And yet, how many Chamber of Commerce delegations stifle their principles in order to journey to Washington and stand in line for these handouts!

Businessmen are probably no more inconsistent ideologically than farmers, professionals, and workers. But by all logic and strategy, they should be out front raising a standard of consistency. Because of their position in society, particularly in America, their failure to hew to the line sets a conspicuous and what might well be a fatal example. Since business has so much at stake in a free competitive society, it should step forward in demonstrating the fullest devotion to the principle of individualistic competition. State paternalism is affirmed in all business circles to be a deadly threat to free enterprise and republican government. But businessmen, individually and in groups, continue to ask for government intervention in the economic sphere.

The opposition to collectivism has fumbled again and again because it has been consistently inconsistent. The doctor who won’t take his own medicine or the lawyer who disregards his own counsel is bound to be less than convincing.

On the other hand, in one notable respect every move made by the collectivists has fitted into a consistent pattern. That is their leveling urge. The key and nucleus of the whole movement toward statism is to take away from some and give to others. No one has phrased this mania quite so lucidly as William Graham Sumner: “A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall do for D.” Analyze down to its sources every “liberal” measure and somewhere in it you will find this basic motivation. It rests on the prime fallacy of the ages, as stated in all its ugly simplicity by the French Revolutionist Babeuf: “We know that every man has an equal right to the enjoyment of every benefit.”

If the true liberals of our time—robbed even of their traditional label by the devious semantic arts of the socialists—are to win acceptance in the minds of men, they will have to agree on a few affirmative principles as simple and as fundamental as Babeuf’s. But, what is much more than that, they will have to go down the line and live by those principles.

When a businessman, farmer, labor leader, or professional man asks for a “break” from government in his struggle with competition, he is so far inconsistent-if he professes faith in free enterprise. He has opened himself to an unanswerable counterattack by those who contend that the competitive system is ruthless and exploitative, not to be trusted. And it is no defense to say, “Everyone else is getting help; the only way I can keep up is to get mine.” This amounts to a defeatist concession that socialism is inevitable.

The acid test for businessmen comes in those no-quarter contests between such competitive groups as railroads and truckers, coal and gas, stock companies and mutuals, chain stores and independents, and the never-ending truculence of “small business” toward “big business.” Can not these competitive tests of ability be carried on without asking for the intervention of government?

Today, of course, we have to contend with those who claim that consistency is not a virtue. They are fond of citing Emerson’s oft-quoted epigram in support of that position. The great Transcendentalist fathered a brood of errors in that passing remark. But it is fair to recall that Emerson did not say, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He qualified his paradox by making it “a foolish consistency.” It is also worth noting that in his Journal entry for September 29, 1838, the Concord philosopher deplored inconsistency.

The truth about consistency was better stated more than two millenniums earlier by Confucius, who said, “A gentleman is consistent, not changeless.”

By the traditional and time-honored ethic, methods and policies can often be compromised successfully; principles cannot. That is where the issue is joined. Today’s pragmatists do not accept that view. They hold that there are no principles so vital that they must be adhered to under all circumstances, hence that there is no virtue in consistency. Anything that “works” is justifiable. The innovators are to be the judges of what works.

As Confucius suggested, men may properly change their methods and policies. They may even change their principles. But when one fails to act in conformance with the principles he professes, he is guilty of something akin to a moral lapse.

In stating his theory of compromise, John Morley wrote that “he who begins life by stifling his convictions is in a fair way for ending it without any convictions to stifle.”

But the inconsistency that is such an Achilles’ heel of American conservatives springs more from foggy thinking and shortsighted expediency than from a true moral lapse. To be consistent, one has to start with certain principles that he will not surrender, even for temporary advantages that might result from compromise. Then one must follow the implications of these principles when put in practice. This second step is the catch of the formula because it calls for the exercise of both intelligence and character.

In a very suggestive sentence of his splendid guide to “The Art of Thought,” Graham Wallas has indicated a simple method for plotting a consistent course in a situation that requires a choice. If you suspect that two propositions which you have heretofore accepted as true seem to conflict with each other, examine the natural implications of both until the point of divergence is located. Then follow the one that leads in the same direction as your irreducible principles, and resolutely abandon the other proposition.

What leads men into ideological inconsistencies?

The first cause is a blind devotion to immediate pecuniary interests. In business, the bird in hand is not always worth two in the bush. A businessman, for instance, may have to sacrifice here and there for his principles. Usually, the sacrifice will be one of temporary gain for long-run good.

The second cause is confusion as to personal and group loyalties. A man may act against his better judgment, submerge his views, because he is reluctant to differ from friends or family or cherished leaders. Or it may be that he is constrained to hold his nose and go along rather than break with his political party or his church. This kind of action cannot be justified if one is asked to swallow a fallacy or support a fraud that he can’t square with the irreducible principles by which his faith and practice are guided. Then he must shake off old loyalties, even if he stands alone.

It must be granted that all organized political action involves compromise. Very often it will appear to any conscientious citizen that he must vote for men and measures which are but the lesser of two evils. But if this is the price that must be paid for political reconciliation of diverse views, then it behooves each of us to look that much harder for nonpolitical alternatives that do not require our voting for an evil.

The inconsistency in political action comes in what John Morley called “a lazy accommodation with error, an ignoble economy of truth,” in which we settle for less than the best of which we are capable, because we lack the toughness of mind and character to exert ourselves for truth and right as we see them.

It has become a popular fetish to boast that “I vote for the man, not the party.” And, of course, it is important that political power be vested in men of high character and integrity. But this alone will not avert bad government not if the political technique of deciding by ballot between two evils is thoughtlessly applied when a positively good alternative might have been available. To vote for the man who will most fairly “redistribute the wealth” is and will always be wholly inconsistent with such principles as private ownership and control of property and voluntary exchange between willing buyers and sellers.

Consistency is the jewel that would bring together men of like minds on the issues that really count. Back in Civil War days in the North there was a slogan, “Vote like you shoot!” That crude admonition might be paraphrased to fit today’s crisis: Vote and act like you talk!