On Chesterton’s fence


G.K. Chesterton, who lived from 1874 to 1936, was an English writer, theologian, and lover of paradoxes. He wrote dozens of books, created the character of priest-detective Father Brown, and he tended to walk around wearing a cape and a rumpled hat, so he’s all right in my book.

In 1929, G.K. Chesterton also gave birth to the principle that would become known as “Chesterton’s fence,” which is still well worth examining nearly 100 years later.

In his book “The Thing” (no relation to the superb 1982 John Carpenter horror film), Chesterton shares the following story: Imagine there is a fence erected across a road. Two men approach this fence. The first man says, “I don’t see the use of this; let’s clear it away.”

The second man replies, “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.”

I only recently learned about Chesterton’s fence, but the moment I read about it, it felt like something clicked into place in my brain.

In my former life, I provided journalistic coverage of a slew of local government meetings. I attended supervisors meetings in Henry and Patrick Counties and city council meetings in Martinsville. I did my best to explain the decisions made at these meetings to the public.

It took me at least a year to learn enough backstory to become comfortable covering these meetings. If a county or city decides to do something, that choice doesn’t take place in a vacuum. There may be historical context – for example, a county might choose not to pursue a course of action because they tried a similar course in the past and it didn’t end well. There can be situations where an idea sounds good on the surface, but if you dig deeper into the particulars, flaws begin to emerge.

The devil is in the details, and understanding how and why a county or city makes the decisions it does requires a working knowledge of the past decisions made by the board. Frankly, it requires work.

This is why it was sometimes frustrating to read the social media comments on some of the stories I wrote. I would often see people deeply upset about a decision made by local government, and it was clear from the context that they didn’t fully grasp what the decision meant or why it was made.

I saw a lot of comments that said, “I just don’t understand why the county is doing X” or “I just can’t understand why the city isn’t doing Y.” Often, I’d be darkly tempted to reply, “Well, you’re completely right; you don’t understand.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that our local governments always make the right choices. No one ever does. However, after six years of attending board meetings and council meetings, I can confidently say that there is always a reason behind the choices our local governments make. It may not always be a good reason, but it’s there.

When we read the news, whether local or national, we should remember the example of Chesterton’s fence. If our government makes a decision that we don’t like, we shouldn’t just say, “Let’s throw the bums out.” We should do a little digging. We should research every side of the argument. We should think critically. And then, once we’re confident that we fully grasp the decision, we can decide if we still want to throw the bums out.



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