Bench Memos

Chesterton’s Fence

The great and wise G.K. Chesterton once 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.

(Some contend that Chesterton’s principle doesn’t always hold and, if regarded as an iron law, is therefore a fallacy. Perhaps so. But his caution certainly deserves more consideration than it often receives.)

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