The Outstater

December 2, 2021

2022 and Chesterton’s Fence

IT IS THE SIMPLEST of public policies, both infinitely practical and politically inarguable. It is known as “Chesterton’s Fence.” John F. Kennedy swore by it. Our generation has no idea what it means. It will frame our New Year’s resolution.

It is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. It comes from C.K. Chesterton’s “The Thing”:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a 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.”

Chesterton is not alone in the observation. It is found throughout our literature and theatre. In Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” Sir Thomas More uses a similar argument to famously challenge his reformist son-in-law. The poet Robert Frost comes to the same conclusion in “Mending Wall.” Scripture is replete with its warning, beginning in Proverbs 22:28, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone that your fathers have placed.”

It is difficult to think of a single fence or stone that this generation has left in place — sex before marriage, the nuclear family, the individual over the state, the lives of innocents, justice under the law, equality of opportunity, the sanctity of private property, and finally the actual fences, both at our borders physically and in our Constitution legally. 

Even the 4/4 time of Rock ’n Roll has fallen before the cacophony of a new music.

So, what do you do when you have torn down a fence that kept the bull from trampling the corn, kept the devil in his hole, kept a neighbor neighborly? 

You might think it would be to restore the status quo ante, to get the bull back into the pasture. Not really. The first thing is to understand there is even a problem. And that, pathetically, is where the public discussion is mired. 

Washington, the corporate media and the education establishment would have us believe that progress is being made, that there is no connection between the flattening of Chesterton’s Fence and the catastrophes that have ensued. Thus they must argue, however absurdly, that inequality is equality, that history is selective, that science is ultimate, that war is peace, that parents are superfluous, that cultures are interchangeable, that citizenship is state of mind, that men are women.

Our hope for the new year is that such distractions will fail, that our generation will be held responsible, that both the purposes of the fences and our dereliction in tearing them down will come to be understood. 

Then, if it is not too late, if this society has not been irreparably weakened, a subsequent generation will know to build them anew. — tcl


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