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Respecting Tradition and the Lessons of History
Discussing a Daily Herald article I wrote several years ago.
G.K. Chesterton once offered a parable about a fence or gate erected across a road. Some people, Chesterton says, will immediately desire to remove the fence if it obstructs their path or if they see no immediate need for the fence. Others will instead proceed with caution and suggest that they should investigate the full reasons for the fence before daring to touch it.
This parable is often referred to as Chesterson’s Fence, and the principle is somewhat apparent: there are two different kinds of reform, one that’s intelligent and one that’s not, with the first being the kind that fully explores the reasons for the status quo before challenging elements of it and the other that proceeds on instinct and emotion, only seeing the status quo as an antiquated impediment to progress.
This is the principle I alluded to an article I wrote for the Daily Herald several years ago: Experience, the Oracle of Truth. I took this title from Federalist No. 20 (believed to be written by James Madison with assistance from Alexander Hamilton). The idea, as Chesterson’s Fence suggests, is that the knowledge and wisdom requisite to ascertain the value of certain traditions and the actual necessity of reform derives from consulting observations, deductions, serious study of history, and the shared experiences of humanity before contemporary and historical.
This is fundamental to small-c conservatism. To allude to Socrates, it’s knowing enough to know what you don’t know and developing the humility to know that if you don’t understand why something is the way it is, it’s best to leave it alone until you do.
This is the type of conservatism that should be shared across the political spectrum. Specific to American governance, neither side should have a monopoly in understanding that in the grand scheme of human history, we’ve got something pretty good going for us in the form of government we’ve inherited. We should be far more careful about “tearing down fences” if we haven’t taken the time to understand why things are the way they are.
I have observed troubling trends on both sides of the aisle. People don’t understand the reasons for the fences of our political culture and system. And they don’t want to understand. All they see are roadblocks on the highway of their political narratives and vision. In an escalating political head-to-head conflict, people Left and Right are tearing out the fences, cutting holes in the wire, digging up the posts, and making a complete mess of things because “the times call for desperate measures.”
I can’t help but be concerned that instead of being confronted with why the fence exists, the fateful question that will confront our children will be why we tore the whole thing down.
Be sure to give the Daily Herald article a read here.
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