Minding Chesterton’s fence

Now that all of America has had a chance to experience sudden, traumatic change, perhaps we can better appreciate conservatism’s celebration of thoughtful, gradual change.

Followers of that philosophy are often caricatured as fierce opponents of all change, hidebound defenders of the status quo, however squalid it might be, against the tiniest encroachment of noble, selfless progress.

But let’s presume that “thoughtful conservative” is a redundancy rather than an oxymoron and consider the words of Edmund Burke, “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

The true conservative welcomes change, but only when it is built on a solid foundation. That requires examining what we have so we know which part of it is valuable and which is not. When we replace something old with something new, we must examine not just the possible consequences but even the consequences of the consequences.

That sentiment is best expressed in the story of Chesterton’s fence, which has become a sort of defining credo of conservatism:

“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.’ ”

If a fence exists, there is a reason for it. It didn’t just appear. It wasn’t put there by lunatics or people walking in their sleep. Fences are built by people who carefully planned them out and “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.” Before we dismiss previous generations as fools or knaves, we’d better try to understand why they did what they did. Only then may we safely dismantle their creations.

The fence metaphor is from G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 book “The Thing,” in which he vigorously defended the Catholic faith, but it applies to any tradition, institution, value or human endeavor some people hold dear and other people would dismantle overnight if they could.

A human endeavor like the American experiment and the fierce devotion to freedom that undergirds it.

Those of you who have been ambivalent about America — on the fence, as it were — how do you feel about it now that we’ve had a brief glimpse of life without it? Does it change your mind about those who prefer that this new normal become permanent and make no pretense of easing us into it?

If you like the shortages, the lack of amenities, the inability to go where you choose, welcome to Bernie Sanders’ socialist diagram of the future. If you like the sacrifices and the sense that someone is always watching to make sure you sacrifice your fair share, welcome to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.

The loss of our identities as unique individuals, as we are herded into subservience to some perceived greater good such as a well-ordered society or a pristine planet, might be a nightmare to most of us. But it is a grand vision to some.

When ordinary life returns — or at least as much of it as we can reclaim — we’d better cherish it and be willing to fight for it. Those who see it as a dystopia won’t let our fragile fence around it stop their fevered march to utopian madness.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].