Chesterton's Fence - Principles #9

Chesterton's Fence - Principles #9

Publish Date
Dec 31, 2021
Principles Series
Last Edit
Mar 23, 2022 12:52 AM
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One great concept I’ve been using recently is that of Chesterton’s Fence. Proposed by G.K. Chesterton in 1929, it’s a great one to keep in mind whenever thinking about politics, entrepreneurship, or any complex system.
The basic thought experiment goes like this: you come across a fence in a field that has no discernable purpose. Your first reaction might be to tear down that fence, especially if you are a reformer, innovator, et cetera. Yet a better first thought would be to ask: why was a fence put up in the first place? There must be a reason; no one builds a fence for no reason. Thus, we reach a better conclusion: you cannot tear down the fence until you know why it was put there in the first place!
Why was this fence put up? If you don’t know, you don’t get to tear it down!
Why was this fence put up? If you don’t know, you don’t get to tear it down!
As an entrepreneur, I hit this multiple times in founding WeAchieve. We’ve thought we’ve had better ways to do things, only to find that existing platforms have good reason for doing things the way they do. We’re evolving along with it, but we built first and asked questions later, when doing the reverse may have been able to save substantial amounts of time.
When it comes to politics, generally, positions of the political left are more likely to violate Chesterton’s Fence. This is in part psychological: the political left is strongly correlated with more openness to new ideas, and thus the desire to tear down existing structures and build new ones is quite strong. Meanwhile the political right, generally, upholds the status quo, and thus are less likely to violate Chesterton’s Fence.
Of course, too much reverence for the fence in the field isn’t great either. Continuing the metaphor, you’d end up in a world full of fences, many of which will be outdated. A healthy person or society needs to find the balance between these two extremes.