Chesterton’s Fence Principle

Chesterton's fence

Chesterton’s fence principle can be explained as follows:

Don’t take down a fence until you know the reason it was put up in the first place.

In other words, don’t be so quick to tear down things you don’t understand.

G.K. Chesterton was an early 20th century English writer best known for the Father Brown Mysteries and The Man Who Was Thursday. Time Magazine once noted: “Whenever possible, Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories—first carefully turning them inside out.”

In this case, fences can be used as an analogy for traditions, existing rules/guidelines, or societal customs. At first glance, many of these may seem old fashion and no longer needed – maybe even hindrances to progress. But a deeper examination is often required. Chesterton wrote:

“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.’”

In other words, the fence may have been put up for a good reason, even if that reason is not obvious. Perhaps it prevents people from walking into a dangerous area. Maybe it demarks a contended property line. As Chesterton goes on to explain, “fences don’t grow out of the ground, nor do people build them in their sleep or during a fit of madness.” Instead, they are built by people who “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.”

Trying to understand why the fence exist doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. Rather, it’s a way to ensure we’re open minded. Once we understand the original rationale for fence, we can make a better informed decision and avoid unintended consequences. In fact, we might decide the fence needs renovating or even removal.

Chesterton’s fence principle doesn’t suggest we can’t challenge tradition or buck the status quo. Instead, it’s a reminder that the best way to improve a system is to truly understand it in the first place. Only then can we loudly sing “Don’t Fence Me In.”

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One Response to Chesterton’s Fence Principle

  1. Helen March 10, 2024 at 9:10 pm #

    Love it – super sensible. Chesterton lived in Beaconsfield – along with a number of other notable authors.

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