Don’t take down the Chesterton Fence until you’ve figured out why it exists. Chesterton said it. JFK loved it. Every conservative today uses it in their fight against radical reform. There’s a compelling simplicity and calmness about the wisdom in this parable. Cool minds, rational thought, and deliberate action are all virtues we admire in our Zen teachers, marathon-running tortoises, protagonists of annoying Sprite ads, and people who don’t hastily kill heroic mongooses that are bloody from fighting the murderous cobra about to harm the sleeping child. We are a visceral, reactive species and it takes effort to overcome these adrenal urges. On the other hand, we admire the decisive action, moral rectitude, and confident determination that brings us lasting change. So what we’re really saying about the Chesterton Fence is, even if it needs to come down, given that you’re a moron, wejust don’t want you to be the one bringing it down.
The problem with the fence parable is, it’s just a fence. So what if it’s the Chesterton Mosquito? We still have no idea what the ecological benefit of the mosquito is, but there is nothing more Chesterton-fence-like than ecological systems. We are loathe to consider the possibility that there isn’t a highly complex, interconnected, and absolutely vital reason for the existence of the mosquito. Unfortunately, it has also killed half of all human beings who have ever lived. There are the misanthropes who will count this as the biggest reason, an antibody against the human disease of the planet. For everyone else living in the tropics, there wouldn’t be a second’s hesitation to wish misery and death upon the neighboring mosquito and its family, and eternal unrest and suffering upon all its ancestors. Will conservatives be comfortable calling this a Chesterton Mosquito?
Where is the equilibrium at which a non-understood extant system, organism, or mechanism, moves from a Fence deserving patient deliberation to a Mosquito deserving instant death and then trials later? Do the pro-Chesterton Fencers agree that such an equilibrium even exists? In more moderate terms, a Fence is to be rated on its current utility, it goes from excellent/useful to neutral/don’t care to bad but less bad than the effort it takes to responsibly take it down, to more bad than the effort it takes to responsibly take it down, to plain horrible. While the real equilibrium is probably towards the plain horrible side of the Mosquito, because of Newton’s First Law and the inertia of action, I am obviously coming down on the equilibrium at the specific point where the negative utility intersects the effort to take it down. This gives me many sub-cases
Quantifying cost of ‘responsibly’: At what degree of confidence do we consider the due diligence closed? Conditional probabilities of our outcomes are predicated on the underlying realities as follows
- Case 1 — There is a purpose and we find it: (i) There used to be wolves to be kept out, there aren’t any more, everyone agrees we can take it down. (ii) There used to be wolves, there still are, everyone agrees we can relocate the wolves and take the fence down. (iii) There still are wolves, everyone agrees we’d rather have wolves than no-fence, so we keep the fence. (iv) There are wolves, fences are very idiotic primitive solutions against them, we build a proper pheromone-based Lakshman Rekha that both keeps the wolves out (which we want) and lets us take down the dumb fence which is both inconvenient and useless. (v) There are wolves of a sort we’ve never encountered before, fences are the best defense against them, we have a newfound appreciation for the fence. (vi) It’s not a wolf, it’s a raging ocean and this fence is the single little plug in the dike. We have better technology to make safer dikes so we reinforce the fence, which would have been impossible to do had we let the ocean in.
- Case 2 — We find nothing. If there really is nothing to find, we’re fine. If there is, we get the outcomes on previous scenarios as (i) Great, we are minus one fence and no worse off. (ii) We have a nasty surprise with the wolves, and there is a one-time loss, but since we would anyway have relocated the wolves and taken down the fence, all we’ve done is accelerate the solution and taken a one-time hit. (iii) We take a one-time hit, then we stupidly put back the fence. This is bad. (iv) We take a one-time hit, then defend against wolves with a far superior solution. (v) We take a one-time hit, then we stupidly put back the fence. (vi) We’re fucked.
- Case 3 — We found nothing yet. This is the equilibrium then for ‘responsibly’ and the answer to the question of degree of confidence, setting the border between case 1 and 2. Case 1 is great. But after how much time do we classify the investigation as Case 2? For this we need an estimate about the nature of the wolf. If it’s actually just a pack of raccoons in well-stitched wolf-outfits and we have no additional cause for concern about the intelligence, coordination and dexterity needed to pull off such a heist, we can almost immediately push the case into case 2, since the one-time hits are low, and the severe downside of option (vi) are highly improbable. On the other hand, if it is highly probable that it isn’t actually a wolf but Tragmorath the demon spawn of Andromeda trapped here by the occult wizards of Chesterton after the most bloody battle of all time, then option (vi) is very likely and we’d rather defer on the side of patience.
This doesn’t mean we’re back at the beginning. It just means we have a moving equilibrium based on current knowns. Some heuristics will be easy to come up with. Small fences made of leftover broken pots and old underwear probably speak to a tailor-raccoon threat. Large fences made of reinforced steel and spiked with the heads of Tragmorath’s acolytes, we should whistle and walk away. All this does is add another variable to the equation: expected cost should things go wrong
Quantifying the equation that determines point of action —
- The operational cost of taking it down and putting up the new one
- The expected cost in the case we don’t find anything and go ahead despite there actually being something
- Discounting future flows of cost with a suitable factor, 1 means we value future cost the same as we do current cost. Should this be a constant, or should it change based on natural changes in optimism/pessimism based on current circumstances?
- The current costs of not taking it down: These keep adding up each day.
The minute 1+2/3 < 4, we act.
It’s problematic to me that the lesson from the Chesterton Fence fable is one of patience and reflection, not of the journey towards well-reasoned, decisive, responsible, and well-prepared action. More than the tortoise and the guy who gets things done, we most admire Barry Allen, for having the strength to change what we can, the serenity to accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. It might be a sweet irony to note here that this Serenity prayer was written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and adopted most popularly by AA.
Funnily enough, Chesterton was referring to the socialists of his time when talking about the fence, against their idea of radical reform, with leading intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw. I find this strange, because the socialist philosophy in that era of 20th century Britain was the Fabian society, after Fabian Cunctator, the Roman ‘procrastinator’ who frustrated Hannibal into defeat. This was a gradualist, creeping sort of compounded reform. This was probably not how it played out, but theoretically this philosophy is like dismantling the fence one brick by brick and responding to any potential increase of threat from the other side with a much better alternative of the fence. A strategy like this should theoretically nullify or greatly mitigate all of the expected costs of Case 2.