Chesterton’s Fence

A fence is not just an obsolete relic to be torn down carelessly.

“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

GK Chesterton

A fence is a practice, a tradition, a belief, a habit – something that tells you to act, or refrain from acting, a particular way.

It sounds like it’s diametrically opposed to free thinking.

There should be no fences – why would I want something to restrict my thought and action by commanding my obedience?

And yet, to think freely is not to dismiss all fences, at least not without giving them their due.

To dismiss all fences without any regard is to dismiss all those before us as bumpkins who knew nothing – or worse, bumpkins who knew mistaken things, things that have to be swept away.

That’s presumptuous, to think so highly of myself and so lowly of others.

Worse, it’s unlikely to be true, and so not in my own interests to do that.

Why would I not benefit from what those before me figured out, rather than learn the hard way myself?


A fence doesn’t grow by itself.

Someone – an individual or a group – put it there, and putting up a fence means something.

It implies a certain strength – you have to be strong enough to put up a fence that endures, that others can’t simply take apart so easily.

It requires effort to put up – and people don’t exert effort without a reason.

So a fence is put up by someone – someone strong enough to put it up.

And it’s put up by him for a reason – meaning he expected to benefit – in some sense of power, status, money or more likely a combination – by the existence of the fence.

Sometimes too, a fence was put up to solve a problem.

And it did that so successfully that, with time, people forgot there ever was a problem to solve.

What you have then, is a fence that seems to have been put up without any reason, now taking up space and being an inconvenience.

And if you see such a fence, it’s not entirely unreasonable to wonder why such a fence should linger on – or why you shouldn’t bring it down.

In some ways, it’s like a developer putting a variable in a program and someone else months later, not seeing the point of its existence, removing it.

It might do nothing, or it might cause the program to crash.


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.”

GK Chesterton

People generally aren’t complete fools, at least not all of them, and tend to act for reasons that make sense to them.

To presume that they are complete idiots and want to tear down what they built with that assumption isn’t likely to lead to the best results.

To begin to understand what I’m tearing down requires intellectual humility on my part.

To accept the possibility that I might not know why something is the way it is.

To have an open mind – only then can I work to try to understand why that fence was put up.

It doesn’t mean accepting the fence as a necessary part of existence; it only means treating its existence with enough respect to attempt to understand it.

Multivariate Functions

‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’

John Muir

And why bother to understand a fence?

Because I don’t know the true impact of my actions, and what might happen if I tear it down.

I might decide one day to drastically transform my lifestyle, and alter my diet, revamp my sleep schedule, and overhaul the exercises I do.

And feel different – much better or much worse, whichever.

Can I ever know what was responsible for the difference?

Of course, even in the best of cases you can’t pinpoint with complete precision, but this is much harder.

What contributed to the change? The sleep, the diet or the exercise?

Perhaps all, perhaps some – perhaps they work in conjunction and a change in one is negligible without the support of the others – but I can’t really know.

It’s possible that one of the changes is in fact detrimental, but it’s covered up by the others.

Imagine a quantity X as a function of three input variables.

X = f(a,b,c)

If you alter a, b and c immediately at once, you don’t really know which pulls how much weight.

It doesn’t mean that you should never make drastic change; just that it’s worth acknowledging you might not know which variable was responsible for the bulk of the change if you do.

This is true from the other end of the stick as well; a single input variable can impact multiple outputs.

Perhaps if I change my diet, I might see gains in strength.

It might change something else too, and not necessarily for the better – feeling slower mentally, difficulty in sleeping, fluctuating levels of some hormones.

X = f(a,b,c) still holds.

But maybe what I can’t see is that X isn’t the only variable affecting me.

Y = f(a,d,e)

Z = f(a,b,q)

If I change one variable, a – I might see the desired change in X (and that’s not guaranteed either) – but I might also end up with changes I didn’t expect, and don’t desire.

Unknown unknowns – the things I don’t know that I don’t know – mean I might affect what I never imagined.

Looking back, I can see I’ve made such errors more times than I care to admit.

It’s not necessarily a case for gradualism – sometimes, drastic or large changes might be vital and small ones ineffective. It’s only a case for transformation with caution, not blind revolution.

Mindless Tearing

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.

GK Chesterton

Tearing down a fence can be as much a compulsion as much as being confined by it – sometimes more so, particularly when the fences are old and weak, and everyone around wants to be seen as a tearer of fences.

It’s easy enough to be swept off one’s feet by new and seductive ideas – swept by tall promises of ideas that haven’t yet had to face reality.

And to want to tear down any fence that stands in the way of those ideas, without pausing to reflect why someone built that fence in the first place.

And usually, to want to tear down that fence only to replace it with one of your own.

Sometimes, people want to tear down a fence, not because they have some issue with the fence, but because they want to think of themselves, and more importantly, want others to think of them, as someone free, unrestrained, who tears down fences.

They don’t really want to tear down that fence; they’ll be happy to be tear down any fence.

Even more, some might want just to tear something.

They don’t really want to tear that fence; not even tear down any fence, but simply tear anything.

And perhaps sometimes they don’t even need to do any tearing; just being seen and thought of as a tearer is enough.

It’s possible then, to tear down a fence without really being against that fence, or being against any fence at all.

Tear, but with Care

You can tear down a fence without really being against what the fence stands for, just because you want to be seen tearing.

In just the same way, you can defend a fence, not because you believe in the idea the fence represents, but just because you want to be seen defending.

It’s also possible though, to be against tearing down a fence, without being in favour of what the fence stands for – because you don’t want to tear blindly.

Unfortunately, tearing down fences is usually much more impressive than advocating restraint, and too easily dismissed as defending the fence by the mind which sees everything as the binary of ‘for or against’, ‘with us or against us’.

This is not a defence of fences, not a paean for tradition, not an ode to conservatism.

Too many fences serve no purpose – or worse, serve the purposes of others against the interest of the one who faces that fence.

They deserve to be torn, but after you see why someone put them up.