Remembering Chesterton’s Fence

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” -G.K. Chesterton

Writer G.K. Chesterton wrote about the importance of understanding the reasoning behind something before tearing it down. Without knowing why it came into being in the first place, we risk haphazardly tearing it down and worsening things compared to when it existed.

Chesterton’s lesson resonates as I think about the oft reflexive responses to policies, plans, data, etc. which follow the news- especially in the age of Twitter where we can all broadcast a response in only a few seconds. The coronavirus pandemic has given us a constant array of examples. Whether criticisms of weeks-old models developed when there were fewer data and greater uncertainty, quick-handed takedowns of the drug and vaccine development processes, or definitive assessments on why technocratic institutions have failed us due to unnecessary bureaucracy, it is not hard to come across responses made outside of Chesterton’s guidance.

This is not to say that those things are immune to critical reevaluation- they most certainly should not be- it is just that those discussions need to start with a contextualization of why things are the way they are before we jump to how we can improve them in the future. Without this we risk repeating history’s mistakes, succumbing to hindsight bias, or downright behaving foolishly while patting ourselves on the back. Without a sound understanding of why things are the way they are, we cannot come up with the proper prescriptions for tomorrow.

Remembering Chesterton’s fence allows us to be better holistic thinkers and may even serve as a source of humility. It may be time to slow down and think about why the fence exists before we rush to tear it down next time- I think we will all be better for it.