Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Considering

A core part of constructing nice selections is knowing the rationale behind earlier selections. If we don’t perceive how we received “right here,” we run the chance of constructing issues a lot worse.


Once we search to intervene in any system created by somebody, it’s not sufficient to view their selections and decisions merely as the implications of first-order pondering as a result of we will inadvertently create severe issues. Earlier than altering something, we should always ponder whether they had been utilizing second-order pondering. Their causes for ensuring decisions is perhaps extra complicated than they appear at first. It’s finest to imagine they knew issues we don’t or had expertise we will’t fathom, so we don’t go for fast fixes and find yourself making issues worse.

Second-order pondering is the observe of not simply contemplating the implications of our selections but additionally the implications of these penalties. Everybody can handle first-order pondering, which is simply contemplating the rapid anticipated results of an motion. It’s easy and fast, normally requiring little effort. By comparability, second-order pondering is extra complicated and time-consuming. The truth that it’s tough and weird is what makes the power to do it such a robust benefit.

Second-order pondering will get you extraordinary outcomes, and so will studying to acknowledge when different persons are utilizing second-order pondering. To know precisely why that is the case, let’s take into account Chesterton’s Fence, described by G. Okay. Chesterton himself as follows:

There exists in such a case a sure establishment or legislation; allow us to say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected throughout a highway. The extra fashionable kind of reformer goes gaily as much as it and says, “I don’t see using this; allow us to clear it away.” To which the extra clever kind of reformer will do properly to reply: “In the event you don’t see using it, I actually received’t allow you to clear it away. Go away and assume. Then, when you possibly can come again and inform me that you simply do see using it, I’ll help you destroy it.”


Chesterton’s Fence is a heuristic impressed by a quote from the author and polymath G. Okay. Chesterton’s 1929 e book, The Factor. It’s finest often called being one in all John F. Kennedy’s favored sayings, in addition to a precept Wikipedia encourages its editors to observe. Within the e book, Chesterton describes the basic case of the reformer who notices one thing, akin to a fence, and fails to see the explanation for its existence. Nonetheless, earlier than they determine to take away it, they need to work out why it exists within the first place. If they don’t do that, they’re prone to do extra hurt than good with its removing. In its most concise model, Chesterton’s Fence states the next:

Don’t take away a fence till you realize why it was put up within the first place.

Chesterton went on to clarify why this precept holds true, writing that fences don’t develop out of the bottom, nor do folks construct them of their sleep or throughout a match of insanity. He defined that fences are constructed by individuals who fastidiously deliberate them out and “had some purpose for pondering [the fence] could be factor for any person.” Till we set up that purpose, we now have no enterprise taking an ax to it. The rationale may not be or related one; we simply want to concentrate on what the explanation is. In any other case, we could find yourself with unintended penalties: second- and third-order results we don’t need, spreading like ripples on a pond and inflicting injury for years.

Elsewhere, in his essay assortment Heretics, Chesterton makes the same level, detailed right here:

Suppose that an excellent commotion arises on the street about one thing, allow us to say a lamp-post, which many influential individuals want to tug down. A gray-clad monk, who’s the spirit of the Center Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, within the arid method of the Schoolmen, “Allow us to to start with take into account, my brethren, the worth of Mild. If Mild be in itself good—” At this level he’s considerably excusably knocked down. All of the folks make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and so they go about congratulating one another on their un-mediaeval practicality. However as issues go on they don’t work out so simply. Some folks have pulled the lamp-post down as a result of they needed the electrical mild; some as a result of they needed outdated iron; some as a result of they needed darkness, as a result of their deeds had been evil. Some thought it not sufficient of a lamp-post, some an excessive amount of; some acted as a result of they needed to smash municipal equipment; some as a result of they needed to smash one thing. And there’s battle within the night time, no man figuring out whom he strikes. So, regularly and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the subsequent day, there comes again the conviction that the monk was proper in any case, and that every one is dependent upon what’s the philosophy of Mild. Solely what we would have mentioned beneath the gas-lamp, we now should focus on in the dead of night.

So simple as Chesterton’s Fence is as a precept, it teaches us an necessary lesson. Most of the issues we face in life happen once we intervene with methods with out an consciousness of what the implications may very well be. We will simply neglect that this is applicable to subtraction as a lot as to addition. If a fence exists, there’s possible a purpose for it. It might be an illogical or inconsequential purpose, however it’s a purpose nonetheless.

“Earlier than I constructed a wall I’d ask to know
What I used to be walling in or walling out,
And to whom I used to be like to present offence.”

— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Chesterton additionally alluded to the all-too-common perception that earlier generations had been bumbling fools, stumbling round, establishing fences wherever they fancied. Ought to we fail to respect their judgement and never attempt to perceive it, we run the chance of making new, surprising issues. By and enormous, folks don’t do issues for no purpose. We’re all lazy at coronary heart. We don’t wish to waste time and sources on ineffective fences. Not understanding one thing doesn’t imply it have to be pointless.

Take the case of supposedly hierarchy-free firms. Somebody got here alongside and figured that having administration and an general hierarchy is an imperfect system. It locations further stress on these on the backside and might even be damaging to their well being. It leaves room for abuse of energy and manipulative firm politics. It makes it unlikely that good concepts from these on the backside will get listened to.

Nonetheless, regardless of the quite a few issues inherent in hierarchical firms, taking out this construction altogether belies a lack of understanding of the the explanation why it’s so ubiquitous. Somebody must make selections and be held liable for their penalties. Throughout instances of stress or disorganization, folks naturally are inclined to look to leaders for route. With out a formal hierarchy, folks usually kind an invisible one, which is much extra complicated to navigate and might result in essentially the most charismatic or domineering particular person taking management, moderately than essentially the most certified.

It’s actually admirable that hierarchy-free firms are taking the big threat inherent in breaking the mildew and making an attempt one thing new. Nonetheless, their method ignores Chesterton’s Fence and doesn’t handle why hierarchies exist inside firms within the first place. Eradicating them doesn’t essentially result in a fairer, extra productive system.

Sure, doing issues the best way they’ve all the time been carried out means getting what we’ve all the time received. There’s actually nothing optimistic about being immune to any change. Issues turn into old-fashioned and redundant with time. Generally an outdoor perspective is right for shaking issues up and discovering new methods. Even so, we will’t let ourselves be too overconfident in regards to the redundancy of issues we see as pointless.

Or, to paraphrase Rory Sutherland, the peacock’s tail just isn’t about effectivity. The truth is, its entire worth lies in its inefficiency. It indicators a fowl is wholesome sufficient to waste vitality rising it and has the energy to hold it round. Peahens use the tails of peacocks as steerage for selecting which mates are prone to have the very best genes to move on to their offspring. If an outdoor observer had been to in some way swoop in and provides peacocks common, useful tails, it could be extra vitality environment friendly and sensible, however it could deprive them of the power to promote their genetic potential.


All of us, at one level or one other, make some try to alter a behavior to enhance our lives. In the event you’re partaking in a foul behavior, it’s admirable to attempt to get rid of it—besides a part of why many makes an attempt to take action fail is that dangerous habits don’t seem out of nowhere. Nobody wakes up at some point and decides they need to begin smoking or consuming each night time or watching tv till the early hours of the morning. Unhealthy habits usually evolve to serve an unfulfilled want: connection, consolation, distraction, take your decide.

Trying to take away the behavior and go away all the things else untouched doesn’t get rid of the necessity and might merely result in a alternative behavior that is perhaps simply as dangerous and even worse. Due to this, extra profitable approaches usually contain changing a foul behavior with , benign, or much less dangerous one—or coping with the underlying want. In different phrases, that fence went up for a purpose, and it may well’t come down with out one thing both taking its place or eradicating the necessity for it to be there within the first place.

To offer an extra instance, in a basic put up from 2009 on his web site, serial entrepreneur Steve Clean provides an instance of a call he has repeatedly seen in startups. They develop to the purpose the place it is sensible to rent a Chief Monetary Officer. Wanting to make a direct distinction, the brand new CFO begins on the lookout for methods to chop prices to allow them to level to how they’re saving the corporate cash. They check out the free snacks and sodas provided to workers and calculate how a lot they price per yr—maybe a couple of thousand {dollars}. It looks like a waste of cash, in order that they determine to cast off free sodas or begin charging a couple of cents for them. In spite of everything, they’re paying folks sufficient. They will purchase their very own sodas.

Clean writes that, in his expertise, the result is all the time the identical. The unique workers who helped the corporate develop initially discover the change and understand issues aren’t how they had been earlier than. In fact they’ll afford to purchase their very own sodas. However out of the blue having to is simply an unmissable signal that the corporate’s tradition is altering, which may be sufficient to immediate essentially the most gifted folks to leap ship. Trying to save lots of a comparatively small sum of money finally ends up costing much more in worker turnover. The brand new CFO didn’t take into account why that fence was up within the first place.


Chesterton’s Fence just isn’t an admonishment of anybody who tries to make enhancements; it’s a name to concentrate on second-order pondering earlier than intervening. It reminds us that we don’t all the time know higher than those that made selections earlier than us, and we will’t see all of the nuances to a scenario till we’re intimate with it. Except we all know why somebody decided, we will’t safely change it or conclude that they had been mistaken.

Step one earlier than modifying a facet of a system is to know it. Observe it in full. Be aware the way it interconnects with different features, together with ones which may not be linked to you personally. Be taught the way it works, and then suggest your change.

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