Chesterton’s Fence & The Intelligent Reformer

 

G.K. Chesterton

There is no shortage of people calling for more “deregulation” or for the dismantling (“the doing away with”) of entire government agencies. There is always a natural agitation to clear away rules and governing oversight, any “fence” that stands in our way.

But most laws, rules & regulations, and institutions of government come into existence after years, sometimes decades, of experience and debate. There is usually a good reason. There is a history that outlines why we have them. We need to know the exact history of why we have these institutions, laws or regulations, and the implications of not having them, before we tear them down. It may be that doing away with the fence doesn’t free the lambs so much as it fattens the wolves.

And so anytime we hear calls for reforming or removing any law, rule, regulation, or government institution we’d be wise to consider the principle of [G.K.] Chesterton’s Fence:

“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.'”