Nothing is so bad as consistency. There exists no more terrible person than the man who remarks: "Well, you may say what you like, but at any rate I have been consistent." This argument is generally advanced as the palliation for some notorious failure. And this is natural For the man who is consistent must be out of touch with reality. There is no consistency in the course of events, in history, in the weather, or in the mental attitude of one's fellow-men. The consistent man means that he intends to apply a single foot-rule to all the chances and changes of the universe.
This mental standpoint must of necessity be founded on error. To adopt it is to sacrifice judgment, to cast away experience, and to treat knowledge as of no account. The man who prides himself on his consistency means that facts are nothing compared to his superior sense of intellectual virtue. But to attack consistency is quite a different thing from elevating inconsistency to the rank of an ideal. The man who was proud of being inconsistent, not from necessity but from choice, would be as much of a fool as his opposite. Life, in a word, can never be lived by a theory.
The politicians are the most prominent victims of the doctrine of consistency.
They practice an art which, above all others, depends for success on opportunism —on dealing adequately with the chances and changes of circumstances and personalities. And yet the politician more than anyone else has to consider how far he dare do the right thing to-day in view of what he said yesterday. The policy of a great nation is often diverted into wrong channels by the memories of old speeches, and statesmen fear men who mole in Hansard.
Again, I do not recommend inconsistency as a good thing in itself. If a politician believes in some great general economic policy such as Free Trade or Protection, he will only be justified in changing his mind under the irresistible pressure of a change of circumstance. He will be slow, and rightly, to change his standpoint until the evidence carries absolute conviction.
In business consistency of mental attitude is a terrible vice, for a simple and obvious reason. By an inevitable process like the swaying of the solstice the business world alternates between periods of boom and periods of depression.
The wheel is always revolving, fast or slow, round the full cycle of over-or under-production. It is clear that a policy which is right in one stage of the process must necessarily be wrong in the other. What would happen to a man who said, "I am consistent. I always buy," or to one who replied, "No man can charge me with lack of principle. I invariably sell"? Their stories would soon be written in the Gazette.
This is the most obvious instance of the perils of consistency in the world of business. But, quite apart from this, nothing but fluidity of judgment can ever lead the man of affairs to success.
I once took the chairmanship of a bank which had passed into a state of torpor threatening final decay. There was not a living fibre in it, and my task was to try to galvanise the corpse. I sought here and there and in every direction for an opening, like a boxer feeling for a weak point in his opponent's guard. My fellow directors, who had served on the board for many years, were shrewd business men, but if the bank had not lost the capacity for either accepting or creating new situations it would not have been in a state of decay. The board met once a week, and the directors gathered together before the meeting at the luncheon-table.
"What surprise proposal are you going to spring on us to-day?" they used to ask me. And the mere fact that the proposal was of the nature of a surprise was almost invariably the only criticism against it. I may have been wrong in surprising my colleagues by the various projects that I put forward, but in the propositions themselves I proved right.
The criticism was really based on the doctrine of consistency fatal to all business enterprise.
Suppose an amalgamation was contemplated one day I would be a buyer of another bank, and if by next week this plan had fallen through I would be strongly in favour of selling to a bigger bank. "But you are inconsistent," said my colleagues. My answer is that what the business needed was life and movement at all costs, and that buying or selling, consistency or inconsistency were neither here nor there.
The prominent capitalist is often open to this particular charge. On Wednesday, says the adversary, he was all for this great scheme; on Friday he has forgotten all about it and has another one. This is perfectly true—but then between Wednesday and Friday the weather has changed completely. Is the barometer fickle or inconsistent because it registers an alteration of weather? Nevertheless, the men of affairs who follow facts to success rather than consistency to failure must expect to pay the penalty. Or at least, if they are to avoid the punishment for being right they must take enormous precautions.
The principle penalty is the prompt criticism that although the successful business man plays the game with vigour, nerve, and sinew, yet he plays it according to his own rules. The truth is that there is no other way in which to play the game. Fluidity of judgment, adversely described as fickleness and inconsistency, is the essence of success.
But the criticism is damaging. There are only two ways of combating it, the wrong one and the right one. The wrong method is that of hypocrisy—claiming a consistency which does not exist. The right one is to cultivate the art of pleasing, so that inconsistency may be forgiven. Friends may thus be retained though business policies vary. This is the highest art of financial diplomacy.
Those who by some misfortune of character or upbringing are incapable of this practice must make up their minds to face the abuse which their successful practice of inconsistency will entail. They will not, if they are wise, cultivate hypocrisy, not because the practice will damage them in the esteem of their colleagues and neighbours, for, on the contrary, it will enhance their repute, but because it will damage their own self-respect. They would know that they were right in following fact and fortune, and yet would be making a public admission that they were wrong.
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