Chesterton’s Fence

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

What is Chesterton’s Fence?

Chesterton’s fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the current setup has been understood.

In G.K. Chesterton’s words:

There exists in … 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.

 In simple terms, don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up!

Why is this interesting?

I can’t summarize it better that Nick Douglas did in his write up for Lifehacker:

“Chesterton’s fence” is now a popular term for the havoc wreaked by overeager reformers and revolutionaries. It’s the “red tape” ripped away by business-friendly politicians, before a deregulated industry collapses or kills off its customers. It’s the laid-off staff who, it turns out, were slow at their own jobs because they were doing everyone else’s. It’s what breaks when you move fast and break things.

I love this gif, it certainly has a bit of Chesterton’s fence about it.

Here’s my newsletter on Chesterton’s Fence.