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November 08, 2014

Fundamental Concepts - Chesterton's Fence [WeirdDave]

This one's kind of fun. It's from C.K. Chesterton's 1929 work The Drift from Domesticity. It goes like this:

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."

OK, but what does that mean, and why is it applicable today? Well, the left has been on a 100 year crusade to dismantle all of the founding principles of the US and Western culture itself. They have in their heads a vision of a Utopian future, and all that needs to be done to realize it is to tear down all that currently stands so that they can build it. They don't care what it is that they are tearing down, or why it's there in the first place, they just want it gone so they can get on with building the brave new world.

The thing is, societal mores do not exist in, nor arise from, a vacuum. They have evolved over time because they are beneficial to someone, some group of people or the entire society. The Divine Right of Kings benefited the monarch to be sure, but it also fostered societal cohesion. Simply tearing down the concept would be a step backwards towards anarchy. The King has no divine right to sit on the throne, so someone stronger assassinates him and takes over, and someone assassinates the assassin, and so on, and so on, some mad, some wise, some kind, some cruel.
"Society" becomes nothing more than endless succession of strongmen and their helpless slaves.

Well, so what, one might ask. Kings aren't any better. There are mad kings, and cruel ones, and wise ones and kind ones. This is true, but the idea behind The Divine Right of Kings is that the KING is also bound by his obligation to a higher power. Individual Kings may be as bad as the worse strongman, but society as a whole is better off because it believes that there is a higher power behind the King, and such expectations do place some constraint upon the King's actions (how much varies with the King, but the strongman has none).

Now, it's still a pretty lousy system, but if that's the "fence" that one wants to tear down, one needs to understand all of this before they seek to tear it down. The Divine Right of Kings is an improvement on the older strongman paradigm. Remove "divine" as the justification for (and expectations of) the King, and you've gone backwards. Understand why it exists in the first place, and then perhaps you can put forth the concepts "rule of law" and "consent of the governed" as the basis for a superior system. Simply recognizing that something is flawed is not enough, you have to know why something is flawed the way it is, and what benefits it provides in spite of its flaws.

And that's why Chesterton's fence illustrates a key conservative concept. Conservatives aren't opposed to change, we're opposed to change for change's sake alone, and to change without considering the cost. A Progressive will say "Cars pollute, we have to replace them with bicycles!". While it's true that bicycles don't pollute like cars do, they also don't haul large quantities of goods efficiently, they don't have the range or speed of cars and host of other things. "Don't care. Pollution bad, bikes good, do it". It's done, and the 80% of the population starves to death because food can't get to the cities in quantities sufficient to feed the population.

A conservative approach would be "Cars pollute, why don't we try replacing them with natural gas vehicles, preserving the benefits of mass transportation and mobility but polluting a lot less, and then see where we are?". It's a sober consideration of the benefits as well as the cost of cars, and an attempt to balance the two.

Chesterton's fence.

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posted by Open Blogger at 02:15 PM

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