Chesterton’s Fence

G.K. Chesterton was an author and a thinker.  He is described as a philosopher, but most of that comes from thinking well. One of his thought masterpieces is one we should spend more time studying.

The idea of Chesterton’s Fence.

It involves a way of thinking that is not so common today. The idea that if something exists, there was a reason for it and perhaps we should know more before we destroy it. Who put the fence there and what motivated them to do it? If we skip the step of understanding how it came to be and do not consider those reasons when we decide to remove it, there is a greater chance of error. New is not a necessary condition for better.

Things that last a long time have some force that makes it so. It’s called  called the Lindy Effect.

From Wikipedia.

“The Lindy effect  is a theorized phenomenon by which the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things, like a technology or an idea, is proportional to their current age. Thus, the Lindy effect proposes the longer a period something has survived to exist or be used in the present, it is also likely to have a longer remaining life expectancy. Longevity implies a resistance to change, obsolescence or competition and greater odds of continued existence into the future.”

If we look at something new, we could argue that its future life expectancy is near zero. Its history is non-existent.

The trend to new is about 60 years old now.

Thomas Sowell has a thought on that, and most of his thoughts are worth noticing.

“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. In area after area – crime, education, housing, race relations – the situation has gotten worse after the bright new theories were put into operation. The amazing thing is that this history of failure and disaster has neither discouraged the social engineers nor discredited them.”

It’s from an essay in his book “Is Reality Optional.” The frightening part is the book was published in 1993. I suspect he is depressed by how the process accelerated in the the three decades following publication. The trend will be hard to reverse if the Lindy Effect is meaningful.

To move the future in better directions we must understand what parts of the past worked and why. The past and present are imperfect, but they are not 100% imperfect. You build on your strengths so you have resources to deal with your weaknesses. Tearing it all down is as foolish as removing a fence when you don’t know who put it there or why. With much higher costs if wrong, though.

A place to begin

Years ago one of my sons took a course in dispute resolution. We chanced to talk about it one time and he was intrigued by how it had a subtle part.  “If you want to move forward productively it is not enough to know the other person’s position. You must understand how they came to hold that position.” If you are in the business of persuasion, you might want to write that down.

If a person holds a strong belief they acquired by study and experiment, like a civil engineer, you can persuade with logic and new facts. If they hold a belief for emotional reasons, you might be able to argue about feelings and persuade, but that’s harder. As Chase Hughes claims, (see yesterday’s article) people don’t make many decisions using their rational brain. They use their ancient brain, the one with emotions, memories, hurt and euphoria. Once the decision has been made they use their higher brain function to make the decision seem reasonable.

The common place

How do you deal with someone who doesn’t even know how they came to hold a given belief? Could be an unchallenged family tradition, maybe a school ideology, maybe religious, or maybe unique to the neighbourhood where you grew up. We are complicated beings.

Try this thought experiment. How do people become a fan of a particular sports team? For boys, it is often the team that won the championship when they were eight. If they are still an avid fan, and many are, how would you use reason to move them from their position?

You couldn’t. You might be able to do so with stories or examples, or maybe taking them to a game with some other team and let them observe differences. It seems a small purpose, but the thinking about how you would do it matters. in bigger issues.

There are many more ideas people hold passionately that would be just as hard to change.

Never ask why?

Why is a fine question, just not in context of behaviour. Rationalizing behaviour or belief is not possible for most people, so they will invent a reason and be impossible to move from that position. Why in respect to behaviour is usually a power question. Why didn’t you do you homework usually gets an unhelpful answer. Far better to ask, “How did this come to happen” People can usually express a process.

Few of us want to rationalize behaviour that has turned out badly. No one will not respect you for putting them in that position. If you want to get an reaction from someone, ask “Why do you have this portfolio?” You might not get to ask another question. Why is an attack when it come to behaviour.

“How did it come to be that” will usually provide an answer that moves the conversation towards a more nuanced understanding of their position.

Some things you can expect

Everyone has strongly held positions that they have no apparent reason to hold. You life will be better if you take a little time to understand how they came to hold them. Often it is the fabric of their upbringing. If the family lost the farm when the person was 15, they will hold security at very high value. They will be risk averse. They will value tangible over intangible.

While it is not so true today as it was 40 years ago, many immensely wealthy people had a disrupted childhood. A parent died or abandoned them is common. That financial and personal insecurity is often met by acquisitions. When you think about it, someone with a hundred million dollars could live for a long time without having more. Why do they need five billion? How about because their underlying insecurity doesn’t have an off switch.

Risk aversion is an emotional thing. The stock market was not a favoured investment until the 60s, and even then it soon fell out of favour until the 80s. People who had money to invest in the 60s grew up in the depression. I know of one who thought it was foolish to buy a provincial bond if a federal bond was available. He never owned stocks. The late 60s and the 70s turned many away. Strangely though, in the stock market, the average returns over long periods remain unchanged. Risk avoidance usually means accepting a different risk that is less emotional for you. Losing purchasing power to inflation is less emotional than losing capital but just as harmful

The bits to take away

Random destruction has a high cost.

If you want effective change you must know how to find the values that matter and have persisted for centuries.

You can find more about how people came to hold the beliefs they do. Some are sound and others are imperfect.

Business relationships are deeper when you understand how thinking systems work.

It is not about what something looks to be, it is about what it means for the person.

Help me please. If you have found this useful, please subscribe and forward it to others.

I build strategy and fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways and alternate timing to achieve both spending and estate distribution goals. In the past I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning, have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email to

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