A popular story from long ago related to when Abraham Lincoln, then a young store clerk, mistakenly shorted a customer by three cents in making change.
After the shop closed, realizing the error, he walked several miles in a blizzard to return the money. Whether the tale is true is not important.
The real significance is that for nearly two centuries the sobriquet “Honest Abe” reflected this nation’s reverence for honesty and truthfulness.
By contrast, our leading luminaries today engender no such adulation. We Americans seem to revel in the scandal of the week. Amidst examples of growing corporate and governmental corruption, names like Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Bank have become cherished household words.
This is a new experience in a society for which institutional malfeasance seemed vaguely relegated to such historical references as Teapot Dome and Crédit Mobilier.
With that as a lead-in on public and institutional honesty, what should we expect from society?
The simple fact is the use of deceptive words and phrases – euphemisms, if you prefer – as well as outright lies is a time-honored tradition.
The beginning of wisdom as well as the start in solving problems is to call things by their right names. Thus if a mentally defective child is called "exceptional," or a prison is described as a "correctional institution," despite the fact that no real effort at correction is made, then these verbal distortions will work against any realistic approach to finding solutions to problems. There are even more subtle ways that reality can be obscured through the way data is presented.
The common admonition on the unreliability of statistics comes immediately to mind: "In this world there are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Not as well recognized is that the same perverted effect can be accomplished graphically. By the simple expedient of expanding or contracting the axes of the graph, almost any impression can be given, and this practice is used constantly in an effort to shape public opinion to favor or oppose candidates, programs, legislation and commercial enterprises.
Quite simply, lies and deception of this sort are used on a regular basis by the most reputable organizations for whatever purpose may be required at the time. If any of this is a surprise, your observation is somewhat lacking.
And finally, we get to the basic question: what must we demand of ourselves? It’s appropriate to ask the question whether honesty is in fact the best policy. This cannot be settled with the expected affirmative answer provided by your scout troop leader or parish deacon, nor should you accept the cynical negative response expected from a carnival sideshow operator or district alderman.
Not until you come to terms with your own personal aspirations, family expectations and demands of society, can you fashion a realistic code by which to live. In the final analysis, honesty for most people is rarely an absolute. Instead, it’s relative and often quite selective. How relative and selective yours will be is an important life decision.
It’s my firm conviction that a reputation for impeccable honesty is among the most valuable assets you can possess.
There are no limits to the doors that open and the opportunities afforded a man or woman whose words and actions can be trusted. Whether you are of truly high moral character, or possess the personal values of an eighteenth century London pickpocket, is not the issue.
From a purely pragmatic frame of reference, it’s best to conduct your affairs in a way your reliability can never be criticized. Note that my stress is not on honesty per se, but on reputation for honesty . . . so if you cannot bring yourself to adhere to these standards, at least try to be discreet in your dishonesty.
For those of you who fit into this category, take your cue from the late comedian George Burns who declared: "Sincerity is my strong point; I fake it masterfully." In short, never lose sight of the fact that a sterling reputation is an irreplaceable commodity to be guarded carefully. And just as it’s advantageous to be believed, strive to deal with others who likewise are believable.
A professional investor for nearly five decades, Al Jacobs holds a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a Real Estate Certificate from the University of California and a Certified Property Manager designation (CPM) from the Institute of Real Estate Management. His written works can be found in the book "Roadway to Prosperity: A Practical Guide to Wealth Accumulation" and also in several newspapers near his hometown of Monarch Beach in Orange County, Calif. Jacobs writes a weekly column for his website.
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