New Hampshire Poll: Romney Maintains Strong Lead, But Perry Jumps Into Second | Main | German Growth At A Standstill; Europe About To Enter New Recession
August 17, 2011

Chesterton's Fence

As you probably realize, my education, especially my political education, is very, very hit-and-miss. A few things I know. Most I don't.

I'd never heard this quote by G.K. Chesterton before, and I'm pretty sure that it's an embarrassing thing to have never heard it before, because it seems pretty important.

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."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

From Megan McArdle, who reminds herself of it when she thinks about doing away with a particular tax loophole without first ever discovering why it exists in the first place.


digg this
posted by Ace at 06:01 PM

| Access Comments




Recent Comments
5/8 Mex: "Posted by: Bertram Cabot, Jr. at December 16, 2017 ..."

JQ: "KT, saw your reply re: turnips/ greens-- thanks so ..."

Bear with Assymetrical Balls: "A good future movie thread might be movies that we ..."

blake: "Sigh. How about a complementary compliment? ..."

The Inexplicable Dr. Julius Strangepork: "Hi, is anyone still here? I used to raise dwarf r ..."

Stringer Davis [/i]]/b]: "But Hitchcock DID make a Titanic movie. He did the ..."

Northernlurker : "I thought In Cold Blood was a very good movie. ..."

blake: "Posted by: KT at December 16, 2017 08:54 PM (BVQ+1 ..."

Bertram Cabot, Jr.: " [i]Emperor of the North .. anyone ? Posted by: ..."

Hands: ""The Right Stuff" is very good. It can't be easy t ..."

troyriser: "I've seen 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' twice now. ..."

Harvey Weinstein: "Ain't nothing to phrenology neither. Posted b ..."

Recent Entries
Search


MuNuvians
Polls! Polls! Polls!
Frequently Asked Questions
The (Almost) Complete Paul Anka Integrity Kick
Top Top Tens
Greatest Hitjobs

The Ace of Spades HQ Sex-for-Money Skankathon
A D&D Guide to the Democratic Candidates
Margaret Cho: Just Not Funny
More Margaret Cho Abuse
Margaret Cho: Still Not Funny
Iraqi Prisoner Claims He Was Raped... By Woman
Wonkette Announces "Morning Zoo" Format
John Kerry's "Plan" Causes Surrender of Moqtada al-Sadr's Militia
World Muslim Leaders Apologize for Nick Berg's Beheading
Michael Moore Goes on Lunchtime Manhattan Death-Spree
Milestone: Oliver Willis Posts 400th "Fake News Article" Referencing Britney Spears
Liberal Economists Rue a "New Decade of Greed"
Artificial Insouciance: Maureen Dowd's Word Processor Revolts Against Her Numbing Imbecility
Intelligence Officials Eye Blogs for Tips
They Done Found Us Out, Cletus: Intrepid Internet Detective Figures Out Our Master Plan
Shock: Josh Marshall Almost Mentions Sarin Discovery in Iraq
Leather-Clad Biker Freaks Terrorize Australian Town
When Clinton Was President, Torture Was Cool
What Wonkette Means When She Explains What Tina Brown Means
Wonkette's Stand-Up Act
Wankette HQ Gay-Rumors Du Jour
Here's What's Bugging Me: Goose and Slider
My Own Micah Wright Style Confession of Dishonesty
Outraged "Conservatives" React to the FMA
An On-Line Impression of Dennis Miller Having Sex with a Kodiak Bear
The Story the Rightwing Media Refuses to Report!
Our Lunch with David "Glengarry Glen Ross" Mamet
The House of Love: Paul Krugman
A Michael Moore Mystery (TM)
The Dowd-O-Matic!
Liberal Consistency and Other Myths
Kepler's Laws of Liberal Media Bias
John Kerry-- The Splunge! Candidate
"Divisive" Politics & "Attacks on Patriotism" (very long)
The Donkey ("The Raven" parody)
News/Chat
Archives
Powered by
Movable Type 2.64