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Chesterton’s Fence

“Before we tear down the walls our governments have erected, we should ask why these walls went up in the first place.”  C.K. Chesterton made this very germane observation in the 1930’s it has come to be called Chesterton’s Fence or Paradox:

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.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

How does this apply today?  Three examples:  Why did we have an embargo against Cuba?  Why did we consider Iran to be a “sponsor of state terrorism?” Why do we have immigration laws that are unenforceable?

Before we change these policies we had better be sure we understand why we started them in the first place.  Oops too late.

This logic should also apply to business decisions.  “Why are we doing this?”should be one of the first questions asked when considering a change.

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