Spool Five

Chesterton's Fence

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.

A cautionary tale about the drive to reform.

Sometimes, looking backward and delving deep into the reasons why things are how they are is more important that looking forward.

An example of this could maybe be found in the Lars Von Trier movie Manderlay (2005). I have only a vague recollection of the scene, but from what I can remember it goes something like this:

At some point in the film the slaves of the plantation are liberated by the well-meaning Grace (a ‘white saviour’). She discovers that lots of ’laws’ exist on the plantation (‘Mam’s law’), most of which are horrific. However, there is one law regarding a line of trees along the farm. The slaves must never cut these trees down. Grace tells them instead that they no longer need to follow these horrible laws, and tells them to cut the trees down for firewood. A dust storm comes and destroys the crops. It turns out that the line of trees were kept there to shelter the crops.

In my current job (civil service) the insight behind Chesterton’s fence is helpful on a daily basis. As is the case with large bureaucracies, there are lots of antiqued practices and procedures. Sometimes it is the case that something that at first seems like an obstruction later reveals a deeper purpose.

The inverse of Chesterton’s Fence - Facebook/Meta’s “move fast and break things”

There is also a deeper, psychological point here - in your drive to reform, be careful of the origins of this drive. Usually, we frame such drives, for both ourselves and others, as a kind of altruistic endeavour to help humanity move forward. More often than not, however, reformers have their own, far more personal reasons for their actions.

A longer version of the same sentiment from Chesterton:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their un-mediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Random Note