There’s an unwritten rule in the remote Australian Outback. When traversing vast cattle farms on endless gravel roads, every once in a while, you might come across a seemingly random gate. The rule is to leave the gate as you found it. If it’s open, keep it that way. If it’s closed, shut it behind you. The reason is simple: You shouldn’t make assumptions about the gate’s purpose. That’s essentially the idea behind Chesterton’s Fence, a principle everyone in the business of enacting change should know.
What Is Chesterton’s Fence?
Chesterton’s Fence is a cautioning principle for reformers stating that change should not be made until the reasoning behind the status quo is fully understood. It was coined by English author and journalist G. K. Chesterton. In his 1929 book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, he wrote:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox.
There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.
Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.G. K. Chesterton
More broadly, before attempting to improve an existing structure, law or institution, we should find out if it needs improvement in the first place. Without knowing the original rationale behind something, we can only guess to what extent it needs to be abolished, changed, or kept as is.
It’s worth noting that Chesterton makes the explicit distinction between reforming and deforming. The former is a slow and detailed process of improving things. Or at the very least, returning them to their original condition. The latter tends to be rushed and destructive. Chesterton picked up on this aspect elsewhere in his writings.
In his essay collection Heretics, the author expanded on his fence metaphor. It was easy to abolish, destroy or demolish the established. The true challenge was to find agreement on what — if anything — to put in its place. He used the example of an old lamp post towering in a neighbourhood. Objections to consider the value of the outdated gas lamp before its demolition are cast aside.
In a spontaneous act of blind activism, the local mob is incited to tear it down. A mob that quickly learns how they all had different reasons for getting rid of the old-fashioned source of light. Some intentions were noble, others sinister. Regardless, now our lamp-post enthusiasts are unable to agree on how to replace the lamp. With the streetlight gone, Chesterton notes, the would-be reformers have to negotiate in darkness.
The example illustrates why Chesterton thought of his metaphorical fence as a potential paradox. If seeing the use of the lamp post is a prerequisite for clearing it away, doesn’t that preclude the need to abolish it? Not quite. Acknowledging the purpose of something doesn’t mean that it still fulfils its original function. It enables us to evaluate if circumstances have changed. Perhaps fresh paint and some vintage-looking LEDs could’ve breathed new life into our lamp.
Whether we’re eager to tear down a fence, a lamp or a whole institution, it pays to consider the side effects of our actions. It may seem obvious, but interventions tend to have multiple effects. We just focus on the one or two desired ones we had in mind. Until the law of unintended consequences comes back to bite us.
By closing the open outback gate, we may think we’ve done the farmer a favour. Kept the cattle from escaping. Saved the neighbouring pub a few hundred kilometres down the road from being overrun by cows. More likely, though, our good intentions put the cattle on the road to hell. Chances are the farmer opened the gate intentionally to give the livestock access to a water well on the other side.
Admittedly, I may be wrong about this. I know very little about cattle farming in the outback. Besides, someone else might have left the gate open when it was supposed to be closed. But acknowledging our potential unconscious incompetence is kind of the point.
According to sociologist Robert K. Merton, ignorance is one of five causes for people facing consequences they did not foresee. A case in point is the infamous Fisher Protocol, a radical way to force the U.S. President to think twice about the consequences of launching a nuclear strike. Another noteworthy of Merton’s causes is short-term interests that sideline our long-term thinking. The local mob from earlier knows what I’m talking about.
In this way, we can see Chesterton’s Fence as a basic mechanism to steer clear of the law of unintended consequences. The principle invokes the overeagerness of reformers and seeks to restrain it. Even though there’s already a force working against them. A force that makes things resistant to change. Since it’s so easy to destroy, maybe it’s a good thing that there’s such a thing as the Lindy Effect.
The Lindy Effect
According to the Lindy Effect, change becomes much more unlikely the longer something has been around. Named after a delicatessen in New York City, it started out as a metaphor for the life expectancy of a comedian’s career. Comedic material is finite, the hypothesis suggested. Consequently, the more stand-ups conserved their resources, the longer they would last in the business.
It was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who expanded the metaphor to apply to non-perishable ideas, concepts and technologies. In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, he argued:
If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The longer something exists, the better its chances of future survival. When it comes to human behaviour, however, the opposite seems to be true: The longer we put off a task, the higher the likelihood we’ll never complete it. It’s almost as if the occasional wilful blindness of reformers serves a purpose: Overcoming the powerful force that is the Lindy Effect. And hoping for the best.
How to Enact Change
That leaves us with the question of how to best enact change. Intelligent reformers, to use Chesterton’s words, investigate the original purpose and current use of whatever existing entity they’re trying to change. An organisation, for example, can easily grow into a needlessly complex apparatus that’s no longer fit for purpose. The longer it survives, though, the less likely it’ll be reformed or abolished. This is why we have to be able to say exactly why it has become pointless.
To do that we need a realistic philosophy of knowing and not knowing. It starts with what is known about our equivalent to Chesterton’s fence. It ends with systematically closing our knowledge gaps in order to make a decision. In this spirit, intelligent reformers make the best possible case for the usefulness of whatever seems in need of reform. If our motivation truly is about improvement, it’ll make our reform efforts more targeted and our lives considerably easier.
Because we may indeed conclude that change is needed. And we may indeed have to convince others of our plans. So it pays to acknowledge the explicit and implicit forces working for and against our reform efforts. Intelligent reformers know that their success depends on their ability to see the world through their counterparts’ eyes. The more detailed our analysis, the more thought-through our plan for what comes after, and the more likely we are to convince others.
It’s important to note that Chesterton was not advocating against reform. Chesterton’s Fence is more like a minimum requirement for enacting change. An appeal to due diligence if you will. While the metaphor cautions against heavy-handed progressive reforms, it’s equally worthwhile to beware of obstructive conservatism. Careful though! There’s a third possibility. Some matters are just none of our business.
More than anything, Chesterton’s Fence tells us something about human nature. People deal differently with rules or boundaries they encounter. If we’re the kind of person quick to erect borders, we should consider what they’re supposed to keep in or out and at what cost. If, on the other hand, we’re inclined to tear down anything that looks like a fence because we see it as an obstacle, we might want to check first if there’s a gate we can use.